There are legal guns and there are mentally ill people and when we form an even more perfect union never the twain shall meet.
But as we await perfection, all we can do is try to make sure we do all we can do to keep firearms out of the hands of people — criminal, mentally ill or otherwise — prohibited from having them. I’m glad this important side of the gun-control equation is getting some attention in the current debate.
We have pretty good records on the criminals who are not allowed to have guns, though there are some holes in that system. It’s a lot trickier to build a database of the mentally ill. I doubt anybody wants a database of every psychiatrist’s records (though there are a few politicians’ names I’d enjoy running through such a database).
But there are voluminous records about folks who, for one reason or another, have been declared mentally ill in a state government forum. That includes people judged mentally incompetent to stand trial and people who wound up in a judicial proceeding that ended with a declaration of mental incompetency.
Here’s the problem: Thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment (10th in the Bill of Rights but first in the hearts of many Texans), the federal government cannot force states to share records, including about the mental health of their citizens. And that means huge holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check system in place since 1999, a valuable system that has blocked more than 1.9 million gun sales to felons, the mentally ill and others barred from possessing firearms.
The federal government, however, can and does entice states to share the mental health records. Those enticements — money — have sparked a huge improvement in the reporting of mental health records from Texas, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued last year as a result of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
Those shootings, the report said, “raised questions about how the gunman was able to obtain firearms given his history of mental illness.” The GAO report — with the mouthful title of “Gun Control. Sharing promising practices and assessing incentives could better position (the U.S. Department of) Justice to assist states in providing records for background checks” — took a look at federal legislation that offers grants as incentive for states to send mental health records to the national database.
The report says the law is clear: “Persons are prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law if they, among other things, have been convicted of a felony, have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or are unlawful users of or addicted to any controlled substance.”
More specifically, federal regulations promulgated under the national Gun Control Act of 1968 say guns are barred for “persons who have been adjudicated as ‘a mental defective,’ including a finding of insanity by a court in a criminal case, incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of insanity, and individuals involuntarily committed to a mental institution by a lawful authority.”
Overall, GAO reported, states have made “limited progress” in providing mental health records to the national database that’s used for gun-purchase background checks. The numbers look pretty good — up from 200,000 records in October 2004 to 1.2 million in October 2011, according to GAO — “but the progress largely reflects the efforts of 12 states, and most states have made little or no progress in providing these records.”
On a related note, GAO reported that a significant uptick in the number of denied gun transactions probably resulted, in part, from the increase in mental health records in the database. Several states, however, reported not having an automated system for collecting the data.
“The one state in our sample that did not cite technology as a challenge, Texas, already had an automated system in place to facilitate the transmission of mental health records,” the report said.
And here’s more good news about us. Texas was among six states the GAO pinpointed for a closer look. It turns out we’re responsible for a healthy chunk of the increased mental health records now available for use in background checks for gun purchases. The report says 190,000 more mental health records from Texas wound up in the national database as a result of a 2009 state law sponsored by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin.
Naishtat recalled it took some jawboning to get his bill passed.
“There were some (House) members who thought it was the beginning of the proverbial slippery slope as far as gun regulation measures,” he said. “I explained to them we were talking about people who have been adjudicated to be incapacitated people with serious mental health problems who are not allowed to have guns.”
Three of the six states studied by GAO said they had no statutory authority to share the mental health records. Thanks to Naishtat and those who backed his 2009 bill, Texas requires local court clerks to send certain mental health records to a state repository within 30 days of court actions.
The GAO report says Texas received $1.3 million in federal money from 2010 to 2011 as part of the incentives for sharing mental health records. That includes a 2011 grant of $547,000 to help pump up reporting of mental health records in judicial districts that still need help getting it done.
“There have been positive fiscal implications for the state of Texas for doing what is right and necessary in terms of minimizing the chances that people with serious mental illness will have access to guns,” Naishtat said.
Texas also got a pat on the back from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, currently among the most active pro-gun control organizations. Its November 2011 report (“Fatal Gaps. How missing records in the federal background check system put guns in the hands of killers”) said Texas has made “dramatic improvement” in recent years in contributing to the national database of mental health records.
At the time of its report, Mayors Against Illegal Guns said 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records. Four had submitted none,
Texas’ improvement in reporting mental health records also has drawn attention from CNN, which, in a recent report on the topic, cited the report by the mayors’ group and said, “That makes gun-friendly Texas — the state next to Oklahoma, which has only reported three (mental health) records — one of the best record-reporters to the federal background check system in the nation.”
Kind of sounds like CNN was surprised about that, doesn’t it?