Politics & Government

House bill would try to keep guns from mentally ill

Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville
Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville

FRANKFORT — A House bill filed this week would address a blind spot in federal background checks that allows mentally ill Kentuckians to buy guns.

Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, wants state courts to notify the Kentucky State Police when they commit people to a mental institution or otherwise find them mentally incompetent. Under Damron's House Bill 308, state police would inform the FBI, which would add the names to its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, used by federally licensed gun dealers to screen their customers.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires background checks for gun purchases and forbids sales to — among others — felons, fugitives and anyone "adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution."

But Kentucky, like most states, does not require courts to share mental health records with the FBI. As of August 2010, 28 states, including Kentucky, each had submitted mental health records on fewer than 100 people since the Brady Act took effect in 1998, according to the FBI. Kentucky had submitted four records.

"This is one big problem with the national background check," said Damron, the House Democratic caucus chairman. "We want only the right folks to be able to buy a firearm. That does not include the mentally ill. I think most gun owners would stand behind that."

Damron said his bill only covers people whose mental illness is documented by a court. Privacy laws shield people who voluntarily commit themselves to an institution or seek other forms of mental-health treatment, and their records probably are unobtainable and could not be shared, he said.

At present, Kentucky State Police are given access to state court records about mental-health adjudications when they review permit applications to carry a concealed firearm, Lt. David Jude said. Anyone classified as mentally ill by a court cannot obtain a concealed carry permit. But state police don't have possession of those court records and they do not forward them to the FBI, Jude said.

The mental-health blind spot in the Brady Act became national news in 2007 when Seung-Hui Cho went on a rampage at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., killing 32 people and then himself. More than a year earlier, a judge had found Cho to be dangerously mentally ill after a stalking incident. But Virginia did not submit those court records to the FBI database, so Cho later cleared the background checks necessary to buy his guns.

The subject arose again last month in Tucson, Ariz., where Jared Loughner fatally shot six people at a shopping center and wounded many others, including a congresswoman. Loughner previously had been fired from a job and ejected from his community college for erratic and disturbing behavior. But local officials said Loughner never was institutionalized, so it's unclear what public record, if any, documented his problems.

"Unfortunately, in mass shooting after mass shooting, we see people who had a million red flags in their background who nonetheless were able to buy their guns legally because nobody was keeping track of it all. Sometimes even a simple Google search can do a better job turning up problems than the background checks," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition To Stop Gun Violence.

The Virginia Tech shootings led Congress to pass a 2007 law offering millions of dollars in grants to states willing to improve their record-sharing with the FBI database.

Since 1998, gun dealers have initiated more than 125 million background checks through the FBI database, according to the FBI. Of that total, the database issued 826,849 denials because the potential purchaser was known to violate at least one of the Brady Act restrictions.

Most of the denials were for felony convictions (62 percent), misdemeanor domestic violence convictions (11 percent) or criminal fugitive status (8 percent). Only 0.75 percent of the denials resulted from a history of mental-health problems. But federal officials also estimate that up to 90 percent of the mentally ill who should be disqualified from gun possession are not in the FBI database, while criminal records are much more freely shared by the states.

Ultimately, background checks are only as accurate as the information provided by the states, Everitt said.

"There's not many carrots or sticks to make the states do this right now, other than appealing to their conscience," he said.

Damron's bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.