Maine has taken significant steps toward notifying federal law enforcement about mentally ill people who should be prohibited from buying a gun.
(TNS) -- Maine police and courts have submitted more than 3,000 mental health records to the FBI’s background check database in recent years as part of the national focus on blocking gun sales to potentially dangerous mentally ill people.
Maine has made substantial progress in notifying federal law enforcement about mentally ill people who should be prohibited from buying a gun in the 2½ years since lawmakers began requiring the reports. But the data-sharing process isn’t as efficient as it could be because of an outdated court record-keeping system that requires state police to manually enter the records in the federal database.
“We have been making great progress,” said Maj. Chris Grotton with the Maine State Police special services. “One hundred percent of the information we receive, we transmit (to the FBI).”
It was unclear Monday, a federal holiday, how many Mainers had been rejected for gun purchases because of mental health records.
The campaign for expanded background checks on gun sales, accelerated by the 2012 shootings at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, has stalled in Congress and in many state legislatures in the face of opposition from the powerful gun lobby and its well-organized supporters. Yet states across the country, including Maine, have quietly begun feeding more information into the federal background check database as part of a bipartisan effort to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
In the 2½ years since state lawmakers strengthened a reporting requirement, Maine has submitted 3,022 records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System on 1,750 people prohibited under federal law from buying guns because they were involuntarily committed to a mental health institution by a court.
Another 377 records on individuals deemed by Maine courts to be mentally incompetent to stand trial or “not guilty by reason of insanity” also have been submitted to the federal government.
By comparison, the state had submitted just 35 mental health records to the federal database as of October 2011, according to an analysis of FBI data by the gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“I think the state has moved very quickly to address this, both the Chief Justice (Leigh Saufley) and the Maine State Police,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, one of the sponsors of the 2013 bill that required the reporting.
About 1,000 requests for involuntary commitment have been submitted to Maine courts annually for the past five years, according to judicial branch records.
Individuals deemed by the courts to be “mentally defective” or who were committed by a court to a mental institution have been prohibited from possessing or purchasing a gun since 1968. Anyone who voluntarily seeks treatment for mental illness or checks themselves into a mental health institution would not be prohibited from owning a gun.
In 1998, the FBI launched the NICS as part of a new Brady Act requirement that all federally licensed gun dealers request a background check on potential gun buyers. Mental health records contained in the NICS and another federal database queried by the FBI remain confidential, and dealers who run a background check through the databases are not told why the individual has been rejected.
State participation in the NICS is voluntary. But while states have submitted tens of millions of criminal history records into the NICS since that time, the vast majority of states sent comparatively few mental health records – or sometimes none at all – until just a few years ago because of a combination of logistical, technological and legal issues surrounding access to confidential mental health records.
The campaign to improve the reporting rate took on new urgency in the spring of 2007 after a Virginia Tech student shot and killed 32 students and faculty members on campus in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. A subsequent review found that federal law prohibited the shooter from purchasing a gun because a judge had ordered him into outpatient treatment and deemed him “an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” But Virginia law at the time did not require submission of the shooter’s name into the NICS, thereby allowing him to buy guns despite a background check.
However, it wasn’t until 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 that states’ participation in reporting mental health records to the FBI surged. States have submitted over 2.1 million mental health records into the NICS since the Sandy Hook shootings, more than double the combined total from the previous years, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization at the front of the push for expanded background checks.
A bipartisan group of Maine lawmakers successfully shepherded a bill through the 2013 legislative session to require data reporting retroactive to 2008. Since then, the Administrative Office of the Courts has worked with state police to send the records to the FBI for inclusion in the database.
“Every case from 2008 forward has been reported to NICS,” said Anne Jordan, manager of the criminal process and specialty dockets at the court administrative office. “Before 2008, state law did not allow us to report that information because it was considered confidential.”
Nationally, the number of people blocked from buying guns because of mental health prohibitions has spiked as states submit more records. In 2013 and 2014, at least 10,932 gun sales were blocked after a background check revealed the potential buyer was prohibited from owning a gun because of mental health issues, according to an analysis of FBI data by Everytown for Gun Safety. That is more than double the number in the two previous years, the organization said in a report last month.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who served as co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee that worked on the 2013 bill, said Jordan and the state police “have done a pretty damn good job” getting the state up to speed on the mental health records.
“I know it’s a big problem (nationally) and that’s why we are doing something about it,” Gerzofsky said. “It’s on our radar … and we are a lot further ahead now than we were before.”
State officials, however, acknowledge the process could be improved.
Maine courts use an outdated case-management system that only allows them to send paper records to the state police’s State Bureau of Identification. Bureau workers then type the information into the federal database.
Jordan said the process typically only takes a few days. Even so, the state police’s Grotton said an electronic transfer would be faster.
“There are always ways to make the system more efficient, and hopefully, at some point, it will be automated,” Grotton said. “But the most important thing is it is effective now.”
The Maine Judicial Branch is reviewing bids from contractors interested in supplying an “e-filing court case management system” that will allow courts throughout the state – whether criminal or civil – to process paperwork electronically. The court received a $15 million bond authorization for the project.
Although the bidding process didn’t lay out a timeline for when the new system will be in place, a report from the Administrative Office of the Courts estimated it would take five to seven years from exploration of options to actual implementation of an e-filing system.
©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.