Since James Holmes killed twelve people in Aurora, catalyzing heated gun control debates across the country, many have focused their attention on the suspect's past psychiatric care. As officials debate what can be done to keep guns out of the hands of those with a history of mental illness, a new report shows that in Colorado -- and in many states across the country -- thousands of mental health records aren't reported to the feds.
This information gets at one of the core issues of the gun control discussion -- one that has seen local officials pushing for a range of policy responses, including restricted online ammunition sales and a return of the assaults weapon ban. But beyond the regulation of gun sales, which remains a politically volatile arena, some gun control advocates are calling for better database systems to identify individuals with a history of mental illness, so that background checks could more effectively prevent these kinds of mass shootings (including the recent Wisconsin Sikh temple tragedy, where a former Denver resident killed six people).
New data, organized in an interactive map and released last week by a national group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, estimates, based on Federal Bureau of Investigation data, how many mental records in states across the country go unreported to the FBI. These figures are especially important in the context of the number of background checks that take place annually.
The data, through April 2012, shows that in Colorado, more than 11,000 mental health records weren't reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The study ranks the fifty states by identifying the five states that have submitted the most mental health records when controlling for population, and then comparing the rest of the country to those standards. In those top five states -- Virginia, California, Washington, Michigan and New York -- 830 records per 100,000 residents have been submitted. Colorado, the report says, would have to submit 11,192 records to join the top ranking states.
Colorado conducted 336,296 gun background checks in 2011 using this very incomplete data according to the study, which notes that 30,885 mental health records have been submitted in the state. Colorado falls somewhere in the middle compared to states across the country and is certainly doing a much better job reporting than the states at the bottom, which in some cases have submitted as few as three records.
"We have a lot of work to do," says Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, which has worked with the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition and works actively on gun control issues. "These recent mass shootings...really draws the focus to mental illness and the need to track it and report it effectively."
This data supports the concerns of officials like Denver mayor Michael Hancock, who we recently spoke with about gun control. Hancock is a part of the coalition that released the report, but he said he would not use the Aurora tragedy to push gun policy changes -- which the coalition has already done. Hancock, speaking to us at a peace rally focused on gang violence, emphasized the importance of mental health in these debates and also suggested some kind of trigger system where law enforcement officials would be notified when large quantities of ammunition were purchased.
The coalition, with this map and new data, is calling on states, through their governors and state legislators, to close the gap in mental-health-records reporting for background checks. Implementing laws and policies that explicitly require or permit state agencies to share relevant mental health records is one of their recommendations -- and the states that have the best record generally have laws that specifically authorize police, courts or other agencies to share mental health records.
The report aslo calls for better funding from Congress for federal grants to states that improve their infrastructure for collecting and submitting relevant records to NICS, the FBI background check system.
In an associated 2011 report exploring this "fatal gap," the coalition noted that Colorado is one of four states that had laws requiring agencies to share relevant mental health records with NICS prior to Virginia Tech (after which seventeen states changed their laws).
Their latest effort directs folks to call on their governor, President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to address this problem. Governor John Hickenlooper, immediately after the Aurora shooting, said thatstricter gun laws would not have prevented this tragedy, and he hasn't spoken out about gun control since then.
A spokesman for Hickenlooper tells us that the governor is planning to meet with stakeholders and advocates on all sides to discuss guns, mental health services and other issues that may be relevant in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings, but says that he is not prepared to comment on the accuracy of this data.
In the meantime, it's likely that Colorado and elected officials will continue to hear about this issue from advocates and other officials concerned about gun violence.
"This sends a clear message that we all need to take a look at this," says ProgressNow's Schwartz. "The key piece is having an adult conversation about what gun violence means in our society and that means laying out all the options on the table.... We just want to hear solutions about what might be feasible in the near future."