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Shootings may push states to give FBI mental health records

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In this Nov. 18, 2014 file photo, a researcher simulates a check done for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS, at the FBIs criminal justice center in Bridgeport, W.Va.

HELENA, Mont. » Six states are not alerting the FBI about people who have been found to have mental health problems that would bar them from owning guns, according to a new report released Thursday by a gun-control advocacy group.

Three of those states recently passed laws to turn over records of people who are involuntarily committed to mental institutions for use in the FBI’s National Criminal Background Check System. The recent mass shootings in California and Colorado could put pressure on the other three, officials for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety said.

“I would hope that renewed attention nationally to the gun area would help propel those states to finish the job,” said Jonas Oransky, the organization’s legal counsel.

Background checks are in the spotlight again after the shootings that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, and three in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have called for expanding background checks, which Republican candidates strongly oppose.

The FBI database is checked before a licensed dealer can sell a gun to determine whether the buyer is barred for reasons that include criminal convictions and mental health problems.

The push to get states to turn over mental health records began after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Virginia did not submit records that could have flagged Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and faculty members. The next year, Congress passed a law that gave states money to help them set up a records system, and threatened to cut other funding if they did not.

Many states were slow to comply. A 2011 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 23 states and the District of Columbia had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records.

After the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, more states passed legislation, and the number of gun sales denied due to mental health issues increased, according to Everytown for Gun Safety officials.

However, six states as of this year have submitted fewer than 100 records since the FBI database began operating in 1998: Montana, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Vermont, Alaska and Oklahoma, according to the advocacy group’s data received from the FBI through public-records requests.

Three — Vermont, Alaska and Oklahoma — all passed laws in the past year to start turning over records. The other three have considered and rejected bills.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said last year’s bill was stalled over privacy concerns and how to restore a person’s gun rights after treatment.

“I do believe that all of us have an interest in seeing if we can do better at keeping people who suffer from mental illness deficiency from getting a firearm and hurting themselves or hurting others,” he said.

New Hampshire’s legislation was gutted, amended and ultimately rejected by state lawmakers.

In Montana’s case, there was general consensus that the dangerously mentally ill should not be able to buy a firearm, and that there should be a way for them to get those rights back later, state Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said.

Lawmakers and interested parties just couldn’t figure out how to do it, he said.

The issue is complex, said Matt Kuntz, the head of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There may be some instances where tragedy could be prevented by turning over the records, but it also has the potential to cause tragedy because people avoid mental health treatment for fear of losing their gun rights, he said.

“The recent rash of mass shootings is why people are focusing on background checks,” Kuntz said. “It is concerning when a lot of the justification for these background checks involves shootings that would not have been prevented by background checks.”


AP writers Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Rachel D’Oro in Anchorage, Alaska and Ken Miller, Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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