by Gun Week staff
A federal list of mentally ill people barred from buying guns has doubled in size since the Virginia Tech shootings in April, and on Nov. 29 US Attorney General Michael Mukasey encouraged more states to add information to the database.
Associated Press and various newspapers reported that in his first policy speech since taking over as attorney general in early November, Mukasey said states have now reported 393,957 mentally ill people to the federal National Instant Check System (NICS) database used to screen the backgrounds of potential gun-buyers. As of last July, three months after the Virginia Tech shootings, states had submitted only 174,863 names to the database.
“Instant background checks are essential to keeping guns out of the wrong hands, while still protecting the privacy of our citizens,” Mukasey said.
“But as we learned in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the checks must be accurate and complete to be effective,” Mukasey told the National Association of Attorneys General. “We’re making progress, and I hope that even more states will submit this information so that the national instant background check system can be maximally effective.”
People are supposed to be included in the NICS database only after courts or other authorities have found them to have mental health problems, Justice Department officials said. However, there have been instances of the Veterans Affairs Departments submitting names that should not have been included.
Currently, 32 states submit names to the mental health database, and the federal government cannot force the other 18 to follow suit.
“We’ve got 32, it’d be nice to have 50,” Mukasey said.
The Deseret News of Salt Lake City, UT, reported that under a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, the states are not required to provide this information. But in failing to do so, they place people with severe mental illness at risk of harming themselves and others. This isn’t a matter of restricting gun rights, it’s a matter of public safety.
Utah is one of 32 states that cooperate with the FBI in providing information about people prohibited from buying guns because of mental health problems. But a number of states, including neighboring states Idaho, New Mexico and Nevada, do not.
California had submitted only 27 names of mentally ill people to the database as of Apr. 30. Since then, the state has given more than 200,000 names to the list, Justice officials said.
Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was not surprised that more states are reporting since the Virginia Tech shooting. “We’re uneasy about it,” he said. “We’re concerned that in the minds of many, mental illness is, per se, equated with violence.”
The list could have the names of people who were ill decades ago but have received treatment and are well, or information from the database could be used for unintended purposes, Honberg said.