(PROVIDENCE, RI) President Obama has just unveiled a set of 23 actions he’ll take to curb gun violence. Among them: encouraging states to share information with a national background check database. While some states are already contributing a significant amount of information, Rhode Island hasn’t submitted a single record.
Federal law says you cannot buy a gun if you’ve been committed to a mental institution, ruled by a court as mentally incompetent, or addicted to an illegal substance. Rhode Island statute says it, too. And here’s how enforcing that law is supposed to work: states and federal agencies transmit certain records about people who can’t buy guns to a big database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. It’s been around since 1998. So let’s say you walk into a sporting goods store to buy a gun. This federally licensed gun dealer plunks your name into a system. If there’s a match in NICS, you don’t get to buy the gun. But here’s how it’s actually working: actually, in Rhode Island, it’s not. The state doesn’t submit any information to that federal database. State law enforcement might be involved if we do, but so far, Colonel Steven O’Donnell of the state police says Rhode Island has contributed exactly zero records to NICS.
“We do not have access to certain records for NICS or to mental health records. That doesn’t mean that if we could connect we’d get them, because that’s a policy decision that we’re in the process of discussing.”
A policy decision meaning that someone has to decide what kinds of mental health records should be in the database and how to protect patient privacy. O’Donnell couldn’t say exactly which state officials or agencies are in the process of discussing the issue, or what they’re discussing. But he says there are plenty of other challenges to overcome if the state wants to participate in NICS. First, there’s establishing a technical connection to the database. Then there's paying for it. And because NICS checks records in 10 different categories, O’Donnell says there’s the challenge of finding out which agencies even have the information and gathering it.
“This is not a one-dimensional problem," said O'Donnell. "It affects so many facets of what we do. And that’s why I think I’m trying to tell you that we’re all trying to figure out the best way to go forward.”
O’Donnell says he believes the state should be participating in the national background check database. But again, it’s not at all clear who’s really responsible for making that happen in Rhode Island or whether there’s enough political will to make it happen. Neither the attorney general’s office nor the state behavioral health agency would comment for this story. They say it’s up to state police, or state legislators to make the first move. Plus, it’s unclear whether the necessary data is available. Take, for instance, mental health records.
“If there’s a trial involved, chances are most of the information is going to be public," says Craig Berke, a spokesman for state courts.
He says in the case of an involuntary commitment to a mental institution, for example, there’s a hearing. And the judiciary maintains records of the decision.
“In this case, the judiciary certainly has no authority at this point to share those records," Berke says, "nor has there been a directive that the judiciary share its records in these cases.”
In other words, lawmakers or a state official with the proper authority have to tell the court to submit those records - the same, most likely, with other records NICS looks for, like misdemeanors in domestic violence. And state officials will have to reconcile concerns about individual privacy with the need to protect public safety. That’s where things get sticky, according to Mike Lawlor, criminal justice advisor to Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.
“The intersection of mental health and criminal justice is a very dangerous place," says Lawlor, "especially in the political world.”
But Lawlor says our neighbor Connecticut, scene of the nation’s most recent mass shooting, has been navigating that intersection for about 15 years now, since the last mass shooting took place there at the Connecticut state lottery headquarters. Lawlor helped craft the regulations that govern gun buying now in the state. Here’s how they handle the privacy issue:
“If someone was trying to buy a gun or someone’s applying for a permit, and they have recently been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others due to a mental illness, then that alert will be made known to the state police, who will only know that they’re ineligible to own the gun and not necessarily why," says Lawlor. "And that will prohibit them from actually completing the transaction.”
News from the White House may encourage Rhode Island to follow suit. On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled a set of 23 actions he plans to take to reduce gun violence. They include beefing up incentives to states to share information with the NICS database. It’s a move federal officials tried in 2007 after the Virginia Tech massacre but with limited success. The president’s new plan is to invest $20 million dollars in helping states share the records. And $50 million more next fiscal year. The plan also calls for clarifying which records states and mental health professionals can safely share without violating someone’s privacy. But this is all still voluntary. So Rhode Island could continue not to participate.
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