Federal safeguards meant to keep guns out of the hands of potentially violent individuals have a huge shortcoming: the database used for background checks may be missing millions of records about people with mental illnesses who are forbidden to own firearms.
Despite improvements in recent years, state governments are failing to submit records to the Federal Bureau of Investigations of people with mental illnesses who have been institutionalized or otherwise deemed by authorities to be dangerous to themselves or others, The New York Times reported Friday. The Times cited a 2011 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 700 city officials that is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), an outspoken proponent of stricter gun control laws.
The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.
The firearms used to murder 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., last week were legally purchased by one of the victims, Nancy Lanza, 52. Lanza was the mother of the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who committed suicide at the scene of the massacre.
Current gun laws to prevent people with mental illnesses from buying firearms apply to people who may not be prone to violence while leaving out others who may be, The Huffington Post reported Monday.
People who have been institutionalized or subject to legal sanctions related to their mental health conditions can't buy guns, regardless of whether their illnesses are associated with violence. At the same time, individuals with mental illnesses or histories of violence who haven't been processed by the legal system don't fall under these rules.
The weapons used in the Newtown murders and the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., last year that took six lives and severely wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) were purchased legally by people not subject to gun law restrictions, as were the firearms used by the alleged killer of 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater this year.
Nevertheless, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre on Friday called for the government to establish a registry of everyone in America with a mental illness. "How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame," he said a news conference during which he took no questions from reporters. "A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?"
Advocates for people with mental illnesses object to characterizations of such individuals as inherently dangerous and argue that broadening restrictions against gun ownership by including more people in the background check database encourages unfair stereotyping. Requiring people with mental illnesses to essentially register with the FBI could discourage them from seeking treatment, the National Alliance on Mental Illness contends.
U.S. gun control laws dating to the 1968 limit firearms ownership for categories of citizens including those with felony convictions and people designated by a court or another official body as a danger to themselves or others, who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or who have pleaded insanity in a criminal trial.
To improve enforcement of these restrictions, the federal government established the the National Instant Criminal Background Check Systems Index as part of the so-called Brady Bill of 1993. The system is designed to screen people prohibited by law from legally obtaining firearms.
The background checks database has 7.3 million active records of people not allowed to buy guns, and 1.4 million of those records were related to mental illnesses as of Dec. 31, 2011, according to an FBI report.
The database consists in part of information states submit to the FBI. But states have failed to provide federal authorities with records of people who fall under the mental illness provisions of gun control laws, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Nineteen states have transmitted fewer than 100 records to the FBI relating to people with mental illnesses, according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report. "That suggests that millions of names are missing from the federal database, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials say," The New York Times reported.
The man who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 shouldn't have been allowed to purchase firearms, but Virginia failed to submit his records to the FBI -- so he passed a background check. The following year, Congress tied federal crime-fighting dollars to states' submission of such information.
Since the change in law, the number of mental-health records in the FBI database has more than doubled, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Virginia has significantly improved its performance since the Virginia Tech killings, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Virginia, led by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, has led the nation in reporting. Mr. McDonnell is an advocate of gun rights, but he also has emphasized the importance of the national database for background checks.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.