The writer is a columnist for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.
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.
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.
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 their citizens’ mental health.
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. That’s according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last year as a result of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.
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, the 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 — “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, the 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.
In its November 2011 report, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns said 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records. Four had submitted none.
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