While expanding the use of background checks on potential gun buyers is among
the proposals being advocated to curb gun violence in the U.S., the check
system Congress created decades ago still relies on an FBI database compiled
with spotty help from states.
New Mexico is one of three dozen states that rely on the FBI to conduct background checks to help keep firearms out of potentially dangerous hands. Among the disqualifiers are being committed to a mental institution involuntarily; committing a felony; testing positive for illegal drug use; and having a history of domestic violence.
Until 18 months ago, however, New Mexico's performance in providing relevant mental-health records was lacking. And sticky issues remain concerning what information can and should be submitted.
Meanwhile, a number of states haven't submitted complete information to federal authorities, according to published research. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that 14 states have flagged fewer than five people for mental-health issues.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act -- which went into effect in 1998, and is named after a White House aide who was injured during the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 -- calls for background checks whenever a weapon is purchased from a federally licensed firearms dealer. The act created the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
December's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has put the system back in the spotlight. The White House and others are now proposing that the requirement for background checks be expanded to all gun sales, not just those by licensed dealers.
This is not the first effort to expand the system. In 2007, in the wake of a mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus in which the gunman had a history of mental illness, Congress made a push to increase states' participation in the database, with a focus on collecting mental-health data.
Last summer, the Government Accountability Office evaluated whether records were being provided as a result of that effort. While the federal office won't give details about the records New Mexico provided between 2004 and 2011, the agency noted that state's reporting procedures left a gap.
Carol Cha, acting director for homeland security and justice issues at the GAO, said, "One of the challenges that we found in talking to the states is that when we talk about criminal history records, all of that information resides with law-enforcement agencies, so it is a lot easier for them to transmit records to the federal database. When you talk about mental-health records, those records reside at private hospitals and state departments of mental health, in all of these other non-law-enforcement agencies."
New Mexico's problem, Cha said, was that it hadn't tasked a state agency with identifying where relevant mental-health records were kept and coordinating a plan to get the records into the database. New Mexico officials had been discussing the issue for about four years, she said, but no solution had emerged at the time of the GAO report, published in July 2012.
Arthur Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said the GAO report doesn't give the state credit for a significant increase in reporting that began in June 2011.
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