Anybody who has been involuntarily committed or been ruled mentally incompetent by a court is banned from buying a gun.
However, mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, or NICS, are spotty.
States are finally making efforts to fill the holes – but some mental health advocates say it won’t decrease gun violence.
After years of inaction, Pennsylvania recently transferred 640,000 mental health records into the national data base. New Jersey began to submit its mental health records in 2011. Delaware is also on track in sharing these records.
Federal legislation passed in 2008, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, offered states financial incentives to submit these records. Not much happened until several organizations demanded the records be shared.
Dave Scholnick from the advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns says the Newtown shootings might have created enough pressure for states to speed up the process.
“Our 2011 report ‘Fatal Gaps‘ had ranked Pennsylvania among the worst-performing states at sharing mental health records with the NICS data base,” explained Scholnick. “With this sharing of mental health records Pennsylvania is now one of the most cooperative states in terms of the number of records shared, and we’re hopeful that it will continue.”
State police representatives say the hold-up in submitting the records was disagreement over which records should be shared. They say that going forward, records will be submitted as soon as they are reported by the county court houses across the state.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks County) would penalize states that fail to transfer their records.
Brian Stettin from the Treatment Advocacy Center says while most people with mental illness are not violent, measures like this are important for public safety.
“When you look specifically at people with the most severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and then drill down within that group, to people who are not receiving treatment, people who are not receiving treatment for these severe mental illnesses are absolutely at disproportionate risk of committing violence,” said Stettin.
Joseph Rogers from the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania lives with bipolar disorder, and says there is no proven link between mental illness and violence. “I have never committed a violent act in my life, I know thousands and thousands of people with that diagnosis, or the diagnosis of schizophrenia who have never committed a violent act in their life.”
Both advocates appeared on WHYY’s Radio Times to discuss access to mental health treatment, and whether mental illness and public safety intersect.
Rogers and other advocates says the increased public attention to mental illness as it relates to violence will keep people from seeking treatment and further stigmatize them.