A statewide report on gun ownership and gun violence will be in the hands of House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) as soon as this week and will likely contain recommendations to increase the disclosure of state mental health records for those pursuing a legal firearm permit.
Any such recommendation, and subsequent legislative action, would potentially close a gap in the state’s woeful reporting data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) – the database used by law enforcement for firearm permit background checks, a database instituted a little over 20 years ago to prevent handguns from falling into the wrong hands.
According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and propagated by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition (MAIG), Massachusetts is one of the worst reporters of mental health records to the NCIS – submitting only one record in the last 20 years.
“We have finished the report and it is in Speaker DeLeo’s hands,” said Revere Supt. Paul Dakin, who was appointed a member of the statewide task force by DeLeo last March. “We actually looked at that kind of info. On a federal level, they seem to look deeper into someone’s background in the mental health area than we do at the state level. When you look at the numbers in Massachusetts, gun crimes and gun murders per capita are pretty good. The ability to get a license here is much more rigorous than other states. That said, mental health records are one area that has shown to us that it may need to be looked at.”
In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, CT, DeLeo appointed a seven-person task force from numerous disciplines to look at gun violence and to advise him on the best legislative solutions to address the topic. That came in the wake of a larger proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick just following the Newtown, CT school shooting.
Given that the shooter in that case suffered from severe mental health issues – and the fact that numerous school and public mass shooting incidents have also revolved around mentally ill people getting their hands on legal weapons – the issue of the state’s lack of reporting mental health records has come to a critical juncture.
Dakin indicated the report would address that very subject of the mentally ill accessing legal guns, but for several City leaders – including Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo – the past failures are rather egregious.
“The notion of only one mental health record being submitted over a 20-year period is a little unnerving,” said Rizzo. “In 2012 alone, more than 210,000 gun background checks were completed in Massachusetts without one Mental Health Record Submission to the NICS being made. This is a failure on our part. We need to discuss ways to do our share in keeping an accurate database identifying people that should not have access to firearms. As a community, we try to do all we can to keep our Neighborhoods along with our municipal and school buildings safe; we could certainly use any and all tools available to us, including these mental health checks, to strengthen our efforts in doing so.”
Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash – also a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition – said he supports the reform as well.
“I remain concerned about the availability of guns in our society, both those legally possessed and those that are acquired and, especially, used illegally,” he said. “I am continually frustrated about reports of violence involving guns, and continue to wonder why our country does not have stronger laws on the books to reduce the incidences of gun tragedies that have become all too common in our lives. I support the advocacy of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as the work that others are doing to make our communities and our residents safer.”
In 1993, former President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill) that required individuals to pass a background check before purchasing a handgun from a federally-licensed dealer. Part of that bill was instituting the NCIS database, which allows handgun retailers and law enforcement officials to run such checks in real time.
That said, MAIG has indicated they believe 20 years into the NCIS, the very records that are so crucial to making it work as best as possible are not there. That’s in large part due to the fact that states like Massachusetts are not submitting the records that would make the federal database complete.
Massachusetts came in dead last in its mental health record reporting, though other states like Alaska, Maryland, Nebraska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming have submitted fewer than 100 records over the last 20 years.
States such as Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Illinois and Minnesota have led the way in drastically increasing the numbers of mental health records submitted to NCIS.
In those states, according to MAIG, there have been two reforms that have been important in increasing participation. First, getting federal grants that improve reporting, and second, drafting state laws that require state agencies to report such records.
The federal grant program authorized in 2008 by Congress to help improve reporting has been woefully underutilized. Only 18 states have qualified for the grant since it began.
Additionally, Massachusetts does not have a state law requiring state agencies to report mental health records to the NCIS.
That, however, could change according to Dakin, and if DeLeo takes up recommendations in the soon-to-be released report on gun violence.
“As a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, we do not oppose gun ownership,” said Rizzo. “To hold accountable irresponsible gun dealers who break the law by knowingly selling guns to straw purchasers. As Mayors, we oppose all federal efforts to restrict cities’ right to access, use, and share trace data that is so essential to effective enforcement, or to interfere with the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to combat illegal gun trafficking. And to keep lethal, military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines off our streets.”