NationNational PoliticsPolitics Now

White House seeks to tighten gun background checks on mentally ill

Personal Weapon ControlGun ControlPolitics and GovernmentLaws and LegislationInterior PolicyCrime, Law and JusticeDiseases and Illnesses

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday unveiled two measures to bring more mental health records into the federal background check system for gun purchases, the first new proposals on firearms violence since a spate of gun control bills died in Congress last spring.

The proposed changes, which don’t require congressional action, fall far short of the ambitious agenda the administration launched early in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut. Many gun sales are not covered by background checks, and Congress seems unlikely to revisit that issue any time soon.

One new rule would change confusing definitions in the law to make clear that people who have been ordered to receive outpatient mental treatment — not just those involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility — are prohibited from buying guns.

If such a rule had been in place in 2007, it may have prevented gun purchases by Seung-hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people in a campus rampage.

The ban still would not apply to those who voluntarily seek treatment or check themselves into a hospital. Although some states have broader rules, the federal definition also doesn’t apply, without a hearing, to people who were hospitalized for brief stays.

Cho had been ordered by a judge to receive treatment, but because he was not institutionalized, Virginia didn’t report his name to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Virginia has since begun to report such outpatient commitments, but most states do not.

Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University professor who has studied mental health standards and gun violence, said he believes that closing the outpatient loophole makes sense, but that the move probably would not greatly expand the number of people barred from buying guns.

Advocates for people with mental illness have pushed to restrict the reporting rules, saying they unfairly stigmatize people who aren’t violent. Mental health records now account for 29% of all records in the background check database. Only unauthorized immigrants form a larger category of people barred from buying guns.

At the same time, the mental health prohibition accounts for only about 1% of all federal denials of gun sales, according to FBI data, since most of the people whose names are in the database because of mental health problems never seek to buy a weapon.

The second change would clarify federal rules on the privacy of healthcare records. Officials in some states have cited those rules as one reason for not submitting mental health records to the background check system.

The records’ gaps in the background check system have received increased attention after a string of mass shootings by people apparently suffering from mental illness. Since 2011, the number of mental health records in the database has nearly tripled, to 3.2 million.

But a number of states have reported just a few records. Reports by the Government Accountability Office and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have found that state officials cite a number of obstacles, including a shortage of funds, the challenge of rounding up and converting old paper records and, in some cases, concerns that turning over the records would violate the privacy rules of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

The new rule would give states and other agencies that track mental health commitment records explicit permission to submit names to the background check database. The new rules do not lengthen the list of who must report or what information gets submitted. Treatment records and other detailed information would remain private.

“There is a strong public safety need for this information to be accessible,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, adding that the rule was crafted to balance public safety with privacy rights.

Gun control advocates, who have been pushing to restart the debate, welcomed the new actions as an encouraging sign.

“We are happy to see the White House starting the new year with a continued resolve to end gun violence,” Shannon Watts, founder and head of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement. “These executive orders are some of what mayors, moms and all Americans have been calling for to keep guns out of dangerous hands.”

Ron Honberg, policy and legal affairs director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he was glad the administration was clarifying the law. More important, however, are the administration’s efforts to expand mental health insurance coverage, he said.

“The greater part of the problem is, people can’t get treatment when they need it,” he said.

Twitter: @JTanfani


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Personal Weapon ControlGun ControlPolitics and GovernmentLaws and LegislationInterior PolicyCrime, Law and JusticeDiseases and Illnesses
  • Republican Party wing creates 18 fake websites for Democrats
    Republican Party wing creates 18 fake websites for Democrats

    If you support Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s bid for reelection, stay away from The site might greet visitors with a welcoming photo of the Arizona congresswoman and a screaming “Kirkpatrick for Congress” logo, but that design belies its true agenda.

  • Senators want power plants secured
    Senators want power plants secured

    WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by the shooting attack on a Silicon Valley-area power station last spring, several senators called on regulators to review security operations at electrical utilities and consider imposing new rules to protect against future attacks.

  • Obama touts, signs bipartisan farm bill in trip to Michigan
    Obama touts, signs bipartisan farm bill in trip to Michigan

    EAST LANSING, Mich. – Keen to not let a rare legislative accomplishment go unnoticed, President Obama jetted to an agricultural research hub in Michigan on Friday to sign into law a long-delayed farm bill and tout the importance of rural America to the economy.

  • Christie Texas trip highlights damage of bridge scandal
    Christie Texas trip highlights damage of bridge scandal

    For the first time in two decades, Texas is electing itself a new governor, making the contest — featuring liberal heroine Wendy Davis — one of the marquee races of this election year.

  • 2014's political moments
    2014's political moments

    Including battles between Congress and the White House, as well as over gay marriage and road closures in New Jersey, these are the moments that capture the politics of 2014.

  • EPA expected to propose stricter ozone limits
    EPA expected to propose stricter ozone limits

    After years of inaction, the Obama administration is expected to propose tougher limits on smog Wednesday, according to people with knowledge of the rule-making effort. The new rule would be a major victory for public health groups, but it is sure to further stoke the partisan clashes between...

  • Middle Easterners crossing border from Mexico? It's rare
    Middle Easterners crossing border from Mexico? It's rare

    For months, some conservative members of Congress and their allies have warned that people from the Middle East could use the Mexican border to gain illegal entry to the U.S. and pose a terrorist threat. Obama administration officials have said such a scenario is unlikely and border agents...

  • Obama appears to be seeking a more forceful Defense secretary
    Obama appears to be seeking a more forceful Defense secretary

    As he searches for his fourth Defense secretary in six years, President Obama appears to be looking for a more forceful, articulate military leader to navigate the tough but limited wars that are likely to consume much of his final two years in office.