More states requiring reporting of mental health records to FBI gun background check database

Maryland now required to report to NICS

For Colin Goddard, the reality hit as hard as the pain.

"I felt like I got kicked as hard as I have ever been kicked in my life above my left knee,” Goddard said. “It shook my entire body.”

Goddard would be shot three more times while under a desk in his Virginia Tech French class in April 2007.

“It was like a sharp burn,” he said. “Kind of a stinging feeling that soon kind of faded into this kind of warm, wet numbness. It was that moment, coupled with the smell of the propellant, the gunpowder that I just realized … I just got shot."

Goddard, was one of 17 people wounded in one of America’s most deadliest mass shootings. Godard survived. Thirty-two others were killed.

The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, took his own life after the massacre on the Blacksburg, Virginia campus, leaving victims and others without an answer to why someone would open fire, killing so many.
              
For Goddard, the question of why, quickly turned into how.

“How do these shootings happen?” Goddard said. “How did this shooting happen?”

By asking these questions, Goddard and others realized the shooter should have never been able to purchase the guns he did. His mental health disqualified him federally.

In late 2005, Cho was declared a danger to himself by a Virginia court, according to a 2007 review of the shooting. This declaration meets the federal criteria, former chairman of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, Richard J. Bonnie, said during the review.

Since the 1960s, U.S. gun control laws have limited firearms ownership for certain individuals. Some of those restrictions apply to those with felony convictions, those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or those who have entered a plea of insanity during a criminal trial.

To help states and the federal government enforce these restrictions, it created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, NICS.

The system was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and is designed to screen people prohibited from legally obtaining firearms from doing so. It was launched in November 1998.

A portion of the databases’ effectiveness depends on states reporting information to the FBI.

"Something as simple as a file transfer from one agency to another could have altered the series of events that nearly got me killed and killed 32 of my classmates,” Goddard said. “It was just shocking how a simple a change in that area could improve things."

There are more than 3.4 million mental health records in NICS as of May of this year, according to the FBI. Those records make up 30 percent of the total active records in the background database and more than a million of those records were added in 2013.

In 2011, Mayors Against Illegal Guns conducted research to discover why critical mental  health and drug abuse records were missing from the NICS database. The coalition of more than 1,000 current and former mayors found 19 states submitted fewer than 100 records to NICS.

Mass shootings like Virginia Tech and the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona where U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot, have brought the issue of states not reporting to the forefront of gun safety conversations.

Since the coalition’s 2011 report, the amount of mental health records reported to the federal government for the purpose of a background check has tripled.

States passing laws requiring or authorizing the reporting of some mentally ill people to NICS for use in firearm purchaser background checks is part of the reason for these increases.

Currently, 39 states have laws in place requiring reporting to NICS.

Click here to see how many records your state has submitted, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a campaign started by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

 

 

According to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the 11 states without laws in place that require providing information to the FBI database are:

  • Arkansas
  • Montana
  • California
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • Vermont
  • Wyoming
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Ohio
  • Utah

The Hawaii governor signed a bill (HB 2246) on June 18 of this year, requiring reporting and a bill in Massachusetts that would require records reporting has passed both houses and is now in conference.

Doctor Beth McGinty, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Maryland is toward the bottom tier of states to finally come around.

Late last year the state passed the Firearm Safety Act that closed the reporting loophole in Maryland.

Before the law was enacted, Maryland reported only 400 records of those involuntarily committed or those found to be not mentally stable to stand trial or conduct their own affairs by the court. Since the bill became law, that number has jumped to around 6,000 records.

“That involuntarily committed group is the group we know is at heightened risk of violence,” McGinty said. “So, going from 0 to 56 hundred is a very big step."     

She points to studies and evidence that show this targeted population is at a higher risk of violence.

Maryland isn’t alone. According to the 2014 report from the Mayor’s coalition, other states have also seen large increases in the number of records reported to NICS in recent years.

South Carolina had only submitted 34 records to NICS as of October 2012 and had no laws addressing mental health reporting. That changed in May 2013 when a law requiring state courts to submit mental health records to NICS was passed. During the next six months, the state reported close to 9,000 records to the system.

Idaho passed a law in 2010 requiring courts to report records to the state police, which were then forwarded to NICS. In April 2012, there were zero records reported but by November 2013, more than 4,000 records were reported.

Kentucky state officials wouldn’t allow records to be submitted to NICS due to privacy issues. That changed in July 2011 with a state law requiring courts to submit records and displacing privacy restrictions.

While there have been huge increases in the number of records reported to the FBI in recent years, gun safety advocates point out there is still more that can be done.

For started, Goddard and others would like to see all states adopt reporting requirements. He is now a Senior Policy Advocate for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

For states that already have requirements in place, some, like Florida and Missouri do not explicitly require that records be reported. In it’s report, the Mayor’s coalition said “these states should provide clear statutory direction that records must be reported so that a change in political will or funding does not hold back progress.”

Jeff Richardson, the Executive Director of Mosaic, a Community Behavioral Health Provider in Baltimore, said laws may only be a bandage on a much larger public health concern.

"It really doesn’t address the broader issue about how we provide services and help our communities,” Richardson said. “If we truly want to make this a safe, healthy community, we should make mental health services much more accessible, resource them much better than we do now and help reduce the stigma and open the access to this level of care."

For Goddard, restricting patients from access to a firearm and convincing the remaining states to fall in line with a 46-year-old federal law is part of the solution.

"I know Maryland was a little late to the game compared to other states,” Goddard said. “But this is such an important issue it is better late than never."

Follow this writer on Twitter: @LWalsh.
 

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