Buying a gun from a dealer – say, a sporting goods store – triggers a federal background check. If you’re a convicted felon, you would fail the background check. So, too, if you’ve been involuntarily committed to an institution or otherwise ruled mentally ill. But the federal database against which background checks are run is only as good as the data. And Rhode Island is one of only four states that haven’t submitted any mental health records at all, according to a recent report out from a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The New York Times ran a story about it here, too.
So why hasn’t Rhode Island complied with federal law? In short, the report explains, it’s complicated. For starters, it’s not clear to some state officials which kinds of mental health records should be shared. Then there are the varying interpretations of HIPAA, or privacy laws, about sharing someone’s health information (including substance abuse-related convictions and treatment). Lack of funding is another reason.
Humbly, I propose another reason: a deep misgiving, perhaps, about the implications of sharing this kind of information. Consider: if you were convicted of a substance abuse-related offense 15 years ago, but have been in recovery ever since, should you be allowed to buy a gun? If you were committed to an institution eight years ago but have since been treated, successfully, for bipolar disorder with medication, should you be allowed to buy a gun? I won’t attempt to answer those questions, but I invite comments. All I can say is: murky waters.
So what’s happening now in Rhode Island? Here’s what the report finds about efforts to address the issue here, based on confidential interviews with state officials (emphasis mine):
…a state official reported that the state is actively working to get records in. Representatives from the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, the state attorney general, the state courts, and others held a summit to discuss record sharing, and state officials recently attended a regional NICS conference in Connecticut to determine how to overcome Rhode Island’s funding, logistical, and privacy obstacles. The state’s primary problem is a lack of funding to update software or implement record sharing. Rhode Island does not have a gun rights restoration program and is thus currently ineligible for federal NARIP grants. The NICS legal team is actively helping Rhode Island to draft laws. Privacy does not appear to be a major problem, but a state official believes that HIPAA privacy laws will be a hurdle for some civil commitment files. State officials are also apparently unsure of exactly which mental health records must be gathered for NICS submission, though the official interviewed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns contends that record submission should move swiftly once that is clarified and the software is in place, especially because Rhode Island mental health records are already kept in electronic form.