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Missing pieces: Dangerous holes in background checks

By Steve Fetveit, Anchor, sfetveit@keci.com
Published On: Feb 20 2013 04:00:48 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 20 2013 09:30:04 PM CST
MISSOULA, Mont. -

A key part of the national debate over gun control pits the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution against mental health and an individual’s right to privacy.

Who among us has the right to bear arms and who should give that right up?

Kathleen-Driscoll Kathleen Driscoll (pictured at left) is an outspoken advocate for stronger mental health funding in the state of Montana. She believes it is very difficult to gauge if a person is mentally stable enough to own a gun.

She points to her own son, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. ”My son is not violent at all,” says Driscoll, “but I certainly wouldn’t want him to have a gun that he doesn’t know is a gun, because of a non-reality check. I just wouldn’t keep it around.”

Matt Kuntz is Executive Director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He’s busy these days. The Montana legislature is in session and Kuntz has concerns for the care and treatment of the state’s mentally ill.

“It’s really hard to do major gun control and mental illness well,” says Kuntz. “There are so few people that have mental illnesses that actually are major dangers to others.”

He wishes the national focus would be directed at improving the care and treatment of the nation’s mentally ill.

Matt-Kuntz “The fact of the matter is,” says Kuntz (pictured at right), “if a mother struggling to care for her son who has a mental illness takes him in to a psychiatrist, he could get three different diagnoses. And if he went to a psychologist, it would be another diagnosis.  It really is a fuzzy science.”

It’s a concern shared by the head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. Gary Marbut sees the benefit to restricting guns on mental health grounds outweighed by the potential for harm.

This is my concern,” says Marbut, “not how mental health evaluation would benefit if used well and correctly, but the tremendous harm that could be done. Perhaps even if it were used as well as the state-of-the-art allows and even if well-intended people attempted to use it correctly.”

There is a system designed to keep firearms from people prohibited from owning a gun. Mandated by the Brady Bill in 1993, the National Instant Background Check system was created in 1999. Maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, NICS comes into play when a gun buyer makes a purchase from licensed federal firearms dealer, but some say the system is lacking.

In fact, there are holes in the NICS database when it comes to mental health records. The FBI gets many of its mental health files from the individual states. But some states cannot or will not release those files. Compliance is voluntary, but the federal government is putting the pressure on to make more records available. 

In 2007, Congress devised incentives and penalties for non-compliance. The penalties won’t come into play for five more years.

For our report on “Getting the Facts: Guns In America,” we went to the FBI and confirmed statistics, released under a Freedom of Information Request, showing how many files the states have reported.

It’s a snapshot in time from October 31, 2011. As of that day, four states had not released a single mental health file to be included in the background check system. They were Alaska, Delaware, Idaho and Rhode Island. In fact, according to FBI ranking, 23 states and the District of Columbia had turned over fewer than 100 mental health records each to the Instant Background Check Index.

Bonten Media stations are in six states. In ranking them for mental health reporting, California stands at the top of the list. In that same snapshot of time, the Golden State had reported 279,589 records. Texas is second with 174,802 reports on file and Virginia is third with 161,334. But the numbers fall off fast -- North Carolina sits 11th on the list with 21,894. Tennessee is 22nd with 3,142 and Montana is 36th with just three files reported.

mental-health-records-repor

Why does the reporting vary so much? According to the Government Accountability Office, the problems are mostly money and state-level legal authority.

The Department of Justice has a program to help with money to set up reporting systems. But so far, only 19 states have laws in place to qualify for the grants.

As for the legal issues, some states lack the state-level statutory authority to share mental health records, and some may actually need an overhaul of their state constitution to participate fully.