Men­tal health checks halt­ing gun sales

Since Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ing in 2007, 4.7 mil­lion pur­chases flagged by sys­tem

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s gun back­ground check sys­tem used to be pretty lousy at stop­ping peo­ple with men­tal health prob­lems from buy­ing guns.

In its first nine years of op­er­a­tion, the Na­tional In­stant Crim­i­nal Back­ground Check Sys­tem flagged just 3,200 gun pur­chases, or just a cou­ple dozen a month. But then came the 2007 Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ing, and a push to get states to add more men­tal health records to the sys­tem. The num­ber soared from a few hun­dred thou­sand to nearly 4.7 mil­lion by the end of 2016.

In the nine years af­ter the law was signed, more than 26,000 gun pur­chases were stopped on men­tal health grounds. By 2017, the rate was more than 500 de­nials a month, ac­count­ing for about 6 per­cent of all re­fused sales.

As Con­gress be­gins an­other round of de­bate on gun con­trols, the post-Vir­ginia Tech law is a rare model of some­thing that has ac­tu­ally moved the nee­dle on firearms ac­cess.

“The NICS Im­prove­ment Act af­ter Vir­ginia Tech was a good step, and it en­cour­aged states, helped states get records into the sys­tem,” said Avery Gar­diner, co-pres­i­dent of the Brady Cam­paign to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence.

NICS, a cre­ation of the Brady Bill signed into law in 1993, has be­come the back­bone of fed­eral gun con­trol ef­forts, in­tended to po­lice sales.

More than 120,000 sales were stopped in 2016, the last year for which there is com­plete data avail­able. Of those, about 43 per­cent were based on a buyer’s past felony or se­ri­ous mis­de­meanor record and 18 per­cent were fugi­tives. Nearly 10 per­cent of de­nials were be­cause of drug ad­dic­tion, an­other 10 per­cent were be­cause of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence con­vic­tions or re­strain­ing or­ders, 4.7 per­cent were be­cause of men­tal health is­sues and 2.7 per­cent were il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

Those un­der in­dict­ment, dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged from the mil­i­tary, who’d re­nounced cit­i­zen­ship or were pro­hib­ited be­cause of fed­eral or state list­ings made up the rest.

But the sys­tem is only as good as its records, which is why one of the ideas with the most bi­par­ti­san sup­port in Con­gress right now is to push fed­eral agen­cies to make sure they’re re­port­ing all of their records.

That plan gained trac­tion af­ter last year’s church shoot­ing in Texas, where au­thor­i­ties say the gun­man would have been de­nied a pur­chase had his do­mes­tic vi­o­lence record while in the Air Force been re­ported.

States learned that les­son in Vir­ginia Tech, where the shooter’s men­tal health his­tory could have de­nied him the abil­ity to pur­chase a weapon had the records been part of NICS.

Af­ter that tragedy, Con­gress cre­ated a fund to help pay states to up­load more records, dol­ing out $109.8 mil­lion in grants be­tween 2009 and 2016 to 30 states.

The num­ber of men­tal health-re­lated records in NICS soared from about 300,000 as of Jan. 1, 2007, to 4.7 mil­lion by the end of 2016.

And by that point, state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties had sup­plied 96 per­cent of the pro­hibit­ing men­tal health records in the sys­tem as the post-Vir­ginia Tech law took hold.

State and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties had con­trib­uted nearly 4.5 mil­lion of the records by the end of 2016, com­pared to about 159,000 in early 2007 — a 2,715 per­cent jump over that time pe­riod.

“There has been some fund­ing avail­able for states to get these records in, and that’s been good — cer­tainly a big in­crease over what was pre­vi­ously avail­able,” Ms. Gar­diner said.

Fed­eral law bans peo­ple from get­ting a gun if they have been ad­ju­di­cated as a “men­tal de­fec­tive” or in­vol­un­tar­ily com­mit­ted to a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to ex­pand that to in­clude records of some peo­ple re­ceiv­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity who had been deemed un­able to man­age their own fi­nan­cial af­fairs. Con­gress ap­proved leg­is­la­tion last year un­do­ing that ex­pan­sion, ar­gu­ing it cut into peo­ple’s con­sti­tu­tional rights with­out giv­ing them due process.

Still, those on both sides of the aisle say there’s sig­nif­i­cant room for im­prove­ment in NICS.

Af­ter the re­cent mass shoot­ing in Florida, Sens. John Cornyn and Chris Mur­phy are try­ing to gather bi­par­ti­san sup­port for leg­is­la­tion that builds off the 2007 law by adding penal­ties for fed­eral agen­cies that don’t com­ply with record-shar­ing rules, in ad­di­tion to in­clud­ing more in­cen­tives for states.

The “Fix NICS” bill has at­tracted sup­port from some gun-rights groups, who say the sys­tem is still in des­per­ate need of bet­ter data.

“The NRA has fought for 20 years to put the records of those ad­ju­di­cated men­tally in­com­pe­tent into the Na­tional In­stant Check Sys­tem,” Wayne LaPierre, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and CEO of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, said at the re­cent Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence.

But pa­tient pri­vacy has been one ma­jor con­cern that’s given some states pause in par­tic­i­pat­ing. Penn­syl­va­nia, for ex­am­ple, had re­sisted sub­mit­ting com­mit­ment records to the fed­eral data­base for years be­fore re­lent­ing in 2013.

In re­cent years, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has also tried to clar­ify that fed­eral pri­vacy laws do not pre­vent states from sub­mit­ting the records.

Mean­while, some gun-rights groups say that any ex­pan­sion of NICS is a step to­ward more fed­eral con­trol over peo­ple’s lives, and that too many peo­ple end up in­cor­rectly swept up in the sys­tem.

“We be­lieve NICS is un­con­sti­tu­tional and flawed to the core,” said Michael Ham­mond, leg­isla­tive coun­sel for the group Gun Own­ers of Amer­ica.

The law does re­quire states that ac­cept grants to no­tify peo­ple they could lose their gun rights if they’re deemed men­tally in­com­pe­tent. States also have to set up a sys­tem to al­low peo­ple a chance to win back their rights.

Some states have passed their own laws re­quir­ing that they sub­mit their records to NICS, but many have con­cluded that the cost-ben­e­fit ra­tio sim­ply isn’t worth it for them.

Ms. Gar­diner said Florida, the site of the re­cent mass shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School that killed 17 peo­ple, has sub­mit­ted more than 141,000 men­tal health records to the fed­eral data­base. But as of Dec. 31, there were fewer than 100 from states like Mon­tana and Wy­oming.

“That tells me that there are gaps still in the re­port­ing of men­tal health records into the NICS sys­tem,” she said.

The ini­tial law also au­tho­rized more than $1 bil­lion in grant money to en­cour­age ad­di­tional re­port­ing, and Con­gress has ap­pro­pri­ated far less over the years than what law­mak­ers could have.

In 2017, there was $11 mil­lion set aside for grants specif­i­cally tied to the 2007 law, with an es­ti­mated $25 mil­lion ap­pro­pri­ated for the bud­get year that ends Sept. 30. Pres­i­dent Trump has re­quested $10 mil­lion for that spe­cific pro­gram in his 2019 bud­get.

“This has been a big prob­lem, and the num­ber of back­ground checks that they have to do has sky­rock­eted,” said Adam Win­kler, a pro­fes­sor at the UCLA School of Law who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on Sec­ond Amend­ment is­sues.

“It’s just part of a whole larger prob­lem of just not fi­nanc­ing the in­sti­tu­tions in gov­ern­ment that are charged with en­forc­ing our gun laws,” he said.


The num­ber of men­tal health-re­lated records in the Na­tional In­stant Crim­i­nal Back­ground Check soared from about 300,000 as of Jan. 1, 2007, to 4.7 mil­lion by the end of 2016. But Repub­li­cans and Democrats say there’s room for im­prove­ment.

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