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States Aren't Submitting Records To Gun Database

A database of mentally ill people barred from buying guns lacks all the records required. (AFP/Getty Images)

A federal database with the names of mentally ill people barred from buying guns still lacks millions of records it needs to be effective. A new report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns points to gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The problem is that 14 years after NICS was put in place, states still aren't submitting all the required mental health records.

"I think that those states are doing a disservice to their citizens," says Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. "They're not doing what they can to protect public safety and to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous people."

Haas has become an activist for stricter gun laws. She says Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho had been ordered by a court to seek mental health treatment. His name should have been in the NICS database, preventing him from legally buying guns, but it wasn't. At the time, Virginia was among the states not fully participating in NICS.

Since the shooting, Virginia has become a model, submitting more than 170,000 records of people with mental illnesses. But the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report shows 21 other states have reported fewer than 100 records.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined why states aren't submitting records in a July report. Some cited bureaucratic barriers, others technical ones, like switching from paper-based to computer systems. And some states contend it violates their laws to forward mental health records to the federal database. A few states are changing their laws.

"Texas enacted a law in 2009 and was then able to increase the number of records by about 190,000," says Carol R. Cha, acting director in GAO's Homeland Security and Justice division.

But recent shootings — like the ones in Colorado and Texas — demonstrate that people with mental illnesses are still able to buy guns. Victims want a national plan to address gun violence. Mayors Against Illegal Guns launched a campaign that includes a video with victims from the 2011 Tucson shooting. In it, they ask President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney to address gun violence in their campaigns.

Federal law bars access to guns only if a court determines someone is seriously mentally ill or if they've been involuntarily committed. There are state laws too, but they vary widely.

California has some of the toughest restrictions. Someone held for 72 hours at a mental health facility for observation is barred from owning a gun for five years; and someone who issues a threat against a specific person in front of a psychotherapist can temporarily lose their right to buy a gun.

"The psychotherapist then has to report the person, and that person becomes prohibited for six months from possessing guns," says Lindsay Nichols, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Second Amendment advocates, like the National Rifle Association, didn't respond to repeated requests to comment on the wide variation in state laws. But others say there are some important things to keep in mind.

"It's often assumed that people with significant mental problems like schizophrenia are inherently more violent," says Dr. Joe Simpson, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California. "But the data doesn't really bear that out, that this is a greatly more violent population."

But no one has come forward advocating for the right of mentally ill people who may not be violent to buy guns.

"Gun rights can always be restored," says Nick Wilcox, whose daughter was murdered by a mentally ill man in 2001 in California, and who is also a volunteer state lobbyist in California with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"But our daughter does not have the opportunity to come back to life," he says. "So we feel it's always best to err on the side of public safety, and you can worry about the civil rights of the mental health patients at a later time."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A federal database of mentally ill people barred from buying guns still lacks millions of records it needs to be effective. A report out today points to huge gaps in the federal background check system that gun sellers use. Nearly a decade-and-a-half after the system was created, states still aren't submitting all the required mental health records. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: For Lori Haas, it was the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 that marked the start of her career as an activist for tightening gun laws.

LORI HAAS: My daughter Emily was in the French classroom where 11 of her classmates were killed, and thankfully she survived.

BRADY: Haas says the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had been ordered by a court to seek mental health treatment. That should have put him in a federal database, barring him from buying a gun. But at the time, Virginia was among the states not fully participating in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Since the shooting, Virginia has become a model, submitting more than 170,000 records of people with mental illnesses. But a report from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows 21 other states have reported fewer than 100 records. That frustrates Lori Haas.

HAAS: I think that those states are doing a disservice to their citizens. They're not doing what they can to protect public safety and to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.

BRADY: The U.S. Government Accountability Office examined why states aren't reporting. Some cited bureaucratic barriers; others, technical ones, like switching from paper-based to computer systems. Some states contend it violates their laws to forward mental health records to the federal database. But Carol Cha, with the GAO, says a few states are changing their laws.

CAROL CHA: As one example, Texas enacted a law in 2009 and was then able to increase the number of records by about 190,000.

BRADY: But recent shootings, like the ones in Colorado and Texas, demonstrate that people with mental illnesses are still able to buy guns. Victims want a national plan to address gun violence. Mayors Against Illegal Guns produced this video with victims from the 2011 Tucson shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: President Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Governor Romney.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We demand a plan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN#3: Because 48,000 Americans will be murdered with guns during the next president's term.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's three Aurora shootings every day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We need...

BRADY: So far, gun violence has not been a central theme in the presidential campaigns. Federal law bars access to guns only if a court determines someone is seriously mentally ill or if they've been involuntarily committed. There are state laws too, but they vary widely. California has some of the toughest restrictions according to Lindsay Nichols with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

LINDSAY NICHOLS: A person who communicates a serious threat of violence against a specific person in front of a licensed psychotherapist, the psychotherapist then has to report the person, and that person becomes prohibited for six months from possessing guns.

BRADY: Also in California, someone held for 72 hours at a mental health facility for observation is barred from owning a gun for five years. Second Amendment advocates, like the National Rifle Association, didn't respond to repeated requests to comment on the wide variation in state laws. But others say there are some important things to keep in mind. Dr. Joe Simpson is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California.

DR. JOE SIMPSON: It's often assumed that people with significant mental problems, like schizophrenia, are inherently more violent, but the data doesn't really bare that out that this is a greatly more violent population.

BRADY: But no one has come forward advocating for the civil rights of mentally ill people who may not be violent. Nick Wilcox's daughter was murdered by a mentally-ill man in 2001 in California.

NICK WILCOX: Gun rights can always be restored, but our daughter does not have the opportunity to come back to life. And so we feel it's always best to err on the side of public safety, and you can worry about the civil rights of the mental health patients at a later time.

BRADY: And each time there's another high-profile shooting involving a mentally-ill person, calls for tightening restrictions grow louder. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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