Utah is one of nearly two dozen states that still does not regularly provide records to a federal database intended to keep guns out of the hands of people with histories of mental illness.
The reason appears to stem from gaps in the information that state agencies share about individuals who have either been civilly committed or determined to be mentally ill in connection with a crime.
The result, critics say, is that, nationally, background checks rely on a haphazard patchwork of records that has allowed people with serious mental illnesses to purchase guns and commit crimes in other states.
Most notably, Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, two years after a judge ruled he was mentally ill.
But the records were not provided to the national database, and he passed several background checks while purchasing the weapons used in the shooting.
Now, after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that left 28 dead, including 20 elementary school children, Utah agencies are trying to better coordinate their reporting efforts, and state lawmakers are looking at whether legislation is needed to ensure information on mentally ill Utahns is made part of the national database.
“Most people agree if you’re not mentally competent you shouldn’t have a gun. I think most of us assume that’s already the law,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who is researching Utah’s current practices.
“At the end of the day, we have to really understand why things are being done the way they’re being done before we propose to change them.”
‘Utah eyes only’ • Lance Tyler, director of the Brady Bill division at Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification, said the state maintains its own registry of people who have been deemed mentally ill — based on information updated daily by the state courts — and those records are checked when a Utah gun dealer runs a background check before selling a firearm.
“It’s available to Utah eyes only,” Tyler said.
That means the information isn’t fed into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Someone who is deemed mentally ill and prohibited from buying a gun in Utah could still pass a background check in another state.
Tyler said BCI does provide information to NICS on individuals who are denied a gun purchase in Utah because of their history of mental illness.
That only happens a few times each month, Tyler said.
As of October 2011, Utah had submitted only 109 such records to the NICS database, according to data from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the state had submitted 37 between August 2010 and October 2011.
Part of Utah’s problem, said Tyler, is that the records provided by the courts often don’t have the birth date of an individual who has been deemed mentally ill, so the data are incomplete.
The petition for a civil commitment, which has the birth date and other information isn’t technically a court document — it belongs to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Prosecutors also don’t consistently provide birth dates and Social Security numbers for defendants adjudicated guilty but mentally ill or not guilty due to insanity, said assistant state court administrator Rick Schwermer.
Exploring action • Legislation has been discussed that would require a prosecutor to provide that information if someone is pleading mental illness, but no bill has surfaced yet.
The Department of Public Safety has also received a grant, Schwermer said, to develop an application to enable the state to share information with NICS, and the program is in the final stages of testing.
Utah’s policies on screening for mental illness have been a topic of discussion for years. After people with histories of mental illness committed fatal shootings at the LDS Family History Library and Triad Center in downtown Salt Lake City in 1999, the Department of Public Safety began its push to screen gun buyers for a history of mental illness.
Sharing information on mental illness has not been challenged by gun-rights groups.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday that too many states weren’t submitting records on the mentally ill to the national database.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said that, as long as there is a clear standard for who is mentally ill and may not purchase a gun, it makes sense to share the information.
“In this day and age, with computers the way they are, there should be no question that we should be consistent with technology,” said Aposhian. “To the degree a person has been adjudicated mentally incompetent or is federally prohibited from purchasing a firearm, we don’t see any reason not to share that information with other states.”
Restoring gun rights? • Thatcher said he is researching Utah’s practices and thinks the state should share the information, but he isn’t sure whether legislation will be necessary.
He said he also wants to make sure there is a way for people to have their names easily removed from the database if a doctor says the individual is no longer a threat.
That will require a policy discussion on how to deal with individuals who are on medication.
“The thing I’m worried about is: What is the process for getting your rights back? If you go through treatment and you’re OK, in my personal opinion, you should get your weapon back,” Thatcher said.
“If you have to be on meds to be stable, should you get a weapon? … My personal opinion is no.”
Guns and mental illness
Gun dealers are required by federal law to submit buyers’ information for a background check, which scans information on three databases — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the Interstate Identification Index, and the National Crime Information Center.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office in July, the total number of mental health records in the NICS database increased from 126,000 to 1.2 million between 2004 and 2011, largely due to a dozen states stepping up their efforts to provide information.
Between 1999 and 2009, 28,637 gun purchases had been rejected because the buyer was flagged for mental health issues.