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State Laws Passed or Improved Since Virginia Tech Have Dramatically Improved Mental Health Records Submissions in the Background Check System, New Report From Everytown for Gun Safety Shows

Despite the Impact of Strong Reporting Laws, 7 States and Washington D.C. Still Have No Reporting Laws

NEW YORK – Everytown for Gun Safety, the country’s largest gun violence prevention organization, today released a new report showing that dozens of states have passed laws to establish or improve their mental health records reporting systems, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of records submitted into the federal background system. This increase has led to an increase in gun sale denials, blocking many more prohibited individuals from buying guns. Despite this progress, fatal gaps in reporting systems remain. Click here to read Fatal Gaps: How The Virginia Tech Shooting Prompted Changes in State Mental Health Records Reporting.

“Reporting laws have had a tremendous impact,” said Sarah Tofte, Director of Research for Everytown for Gun Safety. “Because most states have established or improved their reporting processes since the Virginia Tech mass shooting, thousands of additional gun sales have been blocked each year to people who are prohibited from having them. But the fact that seven states and our nation’s capital still have no reporting law on the books is unacceptable. Our background checks system is only as strong as the records it contains.”

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, part of Everytown for Gun Safety, first highlighted critical gaps in state reporting of mental health records in a 2011 report. A 2014 Everytown report showed significant progress had been made during the previous three years, and this year’s report shows progress has continued:

  • 43 states now have mental health records reporting laws, up from eight at the end of 2007. States with these laws reported more than twice as many mental health records per capita as other states.
  • The number of state-submitted mental health records was nine times higher and gun sale denials to persons with prohibiting mental health histories was 11 times higher in 2017 compared to 2008.

The report also makes clear that more work remains:

  • Seven states and D.C. still do not have laws requiring or explicitly authorizing the submission of mental health records to the federal background check system: Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah and Wyoming (along with D.C.)
  • States with laws should ensure that their reporting laws include provisions that require reporting rather than merely authorizing it, apply to prohibiting records that existed before the laws were enacted, ensure that records from courts and health facilities are submitted, and require all records to be submitted within a short, designated period of time following the prohibiting event.

BACKGROUND CHECKS AND MENTAL HEALTH RECORDS:

Screening gun buyers with a background check is the backbone of any comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy, and it works to keep firearms out of the hands of people who pose a danger of violence to themselves or others. Since its inception in 1994, the background check system has blocked over 3 million sales to people prohibited by federal or state law from possessing guns — including convicted felons, domestic abusers and people prohibited due to mental illness.

A diagnosis of mental illness alone does not prohibit a person from gun possession. Rather, the federal prohibition applies to any person: involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility; found by a court or other authority to be a danger to self or others due to mental illness; found guilty but mentally ill, not guilty by reason of insanity, or incompetent to stand trial; or appointed a guardian due to mental illness.

The foundation of a background check is the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — the system that enables a quick determination on whether a prospective gun buyer is eligible to buy firearms. But a background check is only as good as the records in the NICS databases and the submission of those records largely falls to state courts and law enforcement agencies.

States’ failures to submit records to NICS have enabled prohibited people to pass background checks and purchase firearms, to devastating effect. This problem has been especially acute with mental health records. In 2007, 32 people were shot and killed and 17 others were wounded at Virginia Tech. The shooter was prohibited from possessing firearms due to a court judgment that he was a danger to himself and others, but his records were never submitted to NICS. As a result, he was able to pass several background checks to purchase the guns he used in the shooting.