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Editorial: Background checks face gaps on mental health

Mar. 31, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza had access to a very large cache of weapons and ammunition, search warrants release last week revealed.

Lanza had four guns with him when he shot 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. Investigators estimate he fired 154 rounds in about five minutes, before shooting himself with a pistol.

But the new information shows that Lanza had even more fire power at home. Police found a number of other weapons including firearms, bayonets and swords, along with 1,600 rounds of ammunition. Most was believed to have been purchased by Lanza's mother, who he killed before staging the attack on the school.

That image of a very troubled young man and a stockpile of weapons stands at the heart of the nation's ongoing debate about gun control in the United States. The public and Congress remain very divided about what could or should be done differently, particularly when it comes to limiting sales of weapons or expanding background checks.

But a big part of keeping weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable people will require improving the system already in place.

The FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, W.Va., is the home of the nation's gun background check program. That operation processes sometimes as many as 100,000 requests a day for background checks on who should or should not be allowed to buy a firearm.

The Clarksburg operation checks millions of computer records to see if the applicant is a convicted felon, fugitive, illegal alien, under indictment or subject of restraining order. Most of those records are thought to be fairly complete, although there are some concerns about domestic violence orders.

However, the search also checks for mental health issues, particularly someone who has been ruled mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Those mental health records are far from complete because of inconsistent reporting from the various states.

For example, California has submitted more than 500,000 mental health records; New Jersey has submitted 17, according to an analysis of FBI records by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

The report estimates even the best performing states still miss tens of thousands of records, but most states submit far too few records. West Virginia and Ohio file about 55-60 percent of the records needed, but Kentucky files only about 10 percent, according to that study. In fact, about 13 states have submitted less than 10 records each.

There are a range of issues involved, but the way each state interprets medical privacy laws is a big factor.

Even a very complete database likely would not have flagged Adam Lanza, because there is no indication he was ever committed and his mother apparently bought all the guns. But it is clear that hundreds of thousands of people with documented mental health problems do not show up in routine background checks.

That is a problem states and the federal government need to fix as we work to reduce gun violence and mass shootings in the future.

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