January 1st, 2014

Task force explores mental health reporting for gun checks

The gun violence prevention advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns calls Rhode Island a “worst performing state” for its failure to share mental health records with the federal gun background checks database.

Now a task force is taking an in-depth look at the confidentiality statute preventing the Ocean State from submitting records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The 20-member Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force has been meeting twice a month since last October and has a January 31 deadline to submit a report to the General Assembly with recommendations for new legislation.

The task force was created by legislation submitted by co-chairs Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown) and Senate co-sponsor Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey (D-Dist. 34, Exeter, Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) as part of a 2013 gun safety legislative package following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The task force includes lawmakers, mental health advocates, law enforcement officials and members of the Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club.

“Current mental health law in Rhode Island drafted in 1975 prohibits disclosure of mental health records unless a person or guardian relinquishes that right and no person admitted or certified to any facility shall be deprived of any constitutional or civil rights,” Ruggiero explains. “So the law is real clear.”

“1975 was certainly a very different time than 2013. And when you look at what’s happened since 2007, we’ve had over 26 mass shootings in this country,” Ruggiero adds.

Both Ruggiero and Cool Rumsey want to protect privacy and ensure a means of legal recourse for those who feel wrongly disqualified from purchasing a gun. Cool Rumsey says information the state would submit to NICS should be “as little as possible” and not go into detail about a mental health diagnosis or date of diagnosis or treatment.

“A yes or no answer’s fine. I don’t need to know what their issue is. It could be a whole range of things. That’s nobody’s business,” Cool Rumsey adds.

“We do not want any unintended consequences like discouraging someone from seeking mental health treatment when they need it,” Ruggiero says.

The NICS database was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 to reveal if a prospective buyer is legally barred from owning a firearm. Reasons could include a felony conviction, outstanding arrest warrant, domestic violence-related restraining order against them, dishonorable military discharge, living in the U.S. illegally or having renounced U.S. citizenship, court ruling declaring them mentally incompetent, history of drug use or involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Mental health records submitted to NICS do not include any medical information regarding diagnoses, according to FBI spokesman Stephen G. Fischer, Jr. He says a gun dealer conducting a background check would receive one of three responses: a “proceed” or a “deny” or a “delay.”

FBI data released to Mayors Against Illegal Guns show significant reporting gaps. Of the more than one million records submitted to the NICS database between October 31, 2012 and May 31, 2013, 87 percent came from just two states: Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Fifteen states have reported fewer than 100 mental health records to NICS since its inception 20 years ago. Rhode Island submitted zero, Massachusetts only one and New Hampshire just two.

By Janine Weisman

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