Is Rhode Island taking steps to join NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System? Perhaps. The General Assembly has passed legislation authorizing the creation of a 20-member task force to explore the "intersection of behavioral health and firearm safety." Here's what it means.
Some background on NICS
Back in January, we reported on the fact that Rhode Island does not currently submit any records to one of the three federal databases used to check someone's background before he or she buys a gun. This particular database, NICS, is supposed to contain records indicating whether you've been committed to a mental institution, ruled by a court as mentally incompetent, or addicted to an illegal substance, among other items. Trouble is, those records aren't always available for electronic submission, government agencies don't always have permission to submit them, and there's confusion about what should be submitted, who says you have to, and how to protect patient privacy, among other things. Basically, it's not as straightforward as flipping the NICS switch.
What the bill says
This bill, part of a package proposed by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, could help untangle some of these issues. Here's an excerpt of what it says:
"WHEREAS, The Rhode Island General Assembly seeks to ensure that the laws of our state strike an appropriate balance between preserving the individual freedoms and liberties of responsible firearm ownership, on the one hand, and on the other hand, acknowledging that matters of public safety are recognized; and
WHEREAS, Many of the current laws enacted in our state relating to firearms have not been reviewed for decades, and though various governmental stakeholders have come together during the 2013 legislative session to propose ways to strengthen these laws, the General Assembly believes that it is appropriate to conduct a comprehensive review of these laws; and
WHEREAS, It is of particular concern how the Rhode Island statutory framework deals with the intersection of behavioral health and firearms safety..."
So the bill authorizes a 20-member task force made up of policy, behavioral health, law enforcement, and other types to inspect this intersection and make some recommendations to the governor by the end of the year. They could recommend, for example, that Rhode Island update some of its antique firearms laws (one still talks about machine guns), or suggest ways Rhode Island might adapt some of its neighboring states' strategies (Connecticut contributes to NICS, for example, and has several safeguards in place to protect patient data).
A sticky road ahead
Note some of the loaded (no pun intended) language in there: the nod to second amendment rights and gun violence as a public safety issue, as well as the comment about the attempt to deal with gun violence this legislative session, whose proponents haven't seen so much success. Given recent opposition to certain firearms-related legislation by Rhode Island lawmakers and a more recently aggressive pro-firearms lobby here, it seems the bill's language is an attempt to acknowledge the sticky road ahead.
It's also worth bearing in mind that not everyone thinks background checks and databases full of mental health and criminal records will work well to prevent gun violence. I spoke with public health experts about that for this story earlier this year.