Federal officials say the FBI’s firearms ban database only works if it has “complete, accurate, and timely information.”
Mental health records are a key element of the system. But three states – New Hampshire, Montana and Wyoming – still refuse to represent them.
While US senators have been smoothing down gun reform initiatives, many Republicans, such as Texas Senator John Cornyn, have repeatedly pointed to a law that would bar people with a criminal record or mental health problems from acquiring firearms.
Cornyn backed a 2018 bill to strengthen the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, following a Texas church shooting that killed 27 people. Among the dead was a gunner, an Air Force pilot whose criminal record that would have barred him from buying guns was not submitted to NICS.
“For years, agencies and states have failed to comply with the law by not uploading these important recordings without repercussions,” Cornyn said, noting the Fix NICS solutions that contributed to faster, more accurate submissions. “Just one entry that is not properly reported can lead to tragedy.”
President Donald Trump signed into law this bill, which pumped $615 million into the states to close loopholes and increase accountability in the FBI system.
States have made significant progress by submitting 26 million records to the database, including 6.9 million people declared mentally ill by a judge.
In the absence of state laws requiring participation, Montana and Wyoming submitted 36 and 17 mental health records, respectively. New Hampshire submitted 657. By comparison, Hawaii, which has a population about the same as New Hampshire, submitted nearly 10,000 mental health records.
Records from tri-state public mental hospitals show that many hundreds of people were involuntarily admitted to hospital, all of whom had to be placed in NICS.
History of this program
The National Background Verification System was created as part of the Brady Gun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. Gun shops, pawnshops, and other licensed dealers across the country should use it when someone wants to buy a firearm.
Potential gun buyers must fill out a Bureau of Alcoholic and Tobacco Firearms and Explosives form certifying certain questions, after which their name is passed through the FBI system.
The FBI reports that more than 300 million checks have been carried out during this time, resulting in more than 2 million denials.
Holes in the mental health reporting system gained attention in 2007 after a shooting at Virginia Tech killed 32 people. Two years earlier, a court ruled that a shooting student was an “imminent danger to himself or others” after he was accused of stalking two classmates, leading to a temporary detention that was supposed to deprive him of the right to buy firearms.
At the time, only about half of the states reported mental health records to NICS. By 2012, that number had dwindled to around 19 states that reported fewer than 100 entries, dropping to eight by 2014. It dropped to four in 2016 until Alaska increased its reporting.
“We know that background checks are only as good as the records they contain, so efforts to improve the representation of records in NICS are critical to public safety,” said Kelly Drain, director of research at Giffords Law Center, a prevention group. gun violence. “Research has shown that as states improve the reporting of prohibited mental health events in the background check system, we see a reduction in the risk of violent crime arrests for individuals who are prohibited from doing so.”
The Fix NICS Act, written by Cornyn and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, has been called a “baby step” by gun control advocates, but has received support from both the major gun lobbies and the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation continues to lobby in New Hampshire, Montana and Wyoming for tighter reporting.
“We are committed to ensuring that the background check system reflects the most accurate data available,” said Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the foundation.
Weird Neighbors Continue
Attempts to make background checks “universal” (applied to private sales) have been unsuccessful both at the state and federal levels. But gun rights lobbyists and gun security groups have banded together to strengthen the NICS.
Opposition to this has created some “weird partners,” said Susan Stearns, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In 2017, the Stearns group opposed a measure to allow mental illness to be reported to NICS, largely because it did not provide a way to get off the list.
“The position of the alliance has always been this: if they pose a danger to themselves or others, they should be denied access to lethal means, period,” Stearns said. “But you must not lose your constitutional rights for life.”
Stearns said people in a mental health crisis often recover but may be permanently banned from shooting and hunting.
New Hampshire officials submit court records for anyone deemed incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity, but not for those who are involuntarily institutionalized.
The Alliance has been lukewarm about former Montana Democratic Senator Margie McDonald’s bill, even though her bill included the possibility of delisting after five years.
McDonald tried in 2014 and again in 2019 to pass legislation requiring records. Ultimately, she says, Republican opposition fueled by hardline gun rights groups in the state ruined her efforts.
“It’s discouraging, scary and very dangerous,” she said.
McDonald hosted the father of a Virginia Tech victim at a 2014 hearing in Helena, Montana. The mother of a woman killed in 2008 by a man who bought a firearm just days after being forced into a psychiatric hospital also testified. He lied on the ATF form, answering “no” when asked if he had ever been recognized as mentally ill.
Lying in uniform can result in fines and up to 10 years in prison.
Data provided to the Washington Post by the Department of Justice shows cases involving lying on the form are exceedingly rare, with 243 incidents in fiscal 2020 out of millions of checks.
In Wyoming, former Rep. Sarah Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, sponsored an attempt in 2019 to require NICS to provide mental health reports that also failed. She said she faced “first-class disinformation evidence” from groups such as the Wyoming Gun Owners, who are backed by the Dorr brothers.
Burlingame said Wyoming’s ranking as the worst place in per capita suicide rates is reason enough to keep firearms away from people in crisis.
“It has to do with older white males being isolated and having access to firearms,” Burlingame said. “If this doesn’t inspire people to create a culture that preserves our cultural right to firearms and moral obligations, I don’t know what will.
“It’s common sense legislation that every other state has understood.”
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