Just days after new polling that shows an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans continue to support expanding background checks, new FBI data released today by Everytown for Gun Safety shows the number of mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has tripled in less than three years.
The dramatic rise in records comes three years after Mayors Against Illegal Guns (now part of Everytown for Gun Safety) released Fatal Gaps: How Missing Records in the Federal Background Check System Put Guns in the Hands of Killers, the first and seminal report to detail how missing records in the background check system allow dangerously mentally ill people like the 2007 Virginia Tech gunman to pass background checks and buy guns – and reviewed the record reporting laws and practices of all fifty states. In 2013, with three times as many records in the system, 65 percent more dangerously mentally ill individuals who tried to buy guns were blocked from purchasing guns compared to just two years prior.
Everytown today updated its online Fatal Gaps heat map to show each state’s progress in reporting mental health records and released a new report, Closing the Gaps, which documents the steps states have taken to improve record-sharing and ensure that seriously mentally ill individuals — who are federally prohibited from buying firearms — are blocked when they try to purchase a gun. Since the release of Fatal Gaps in 2011, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has pressed states to adopt or strengthen the laws that require courts and mental health facilities to report these records to the background check system, and the organization advocated for increased federal funding to help states improve record reporting. As a result, the number of states that have reported fewer than 100 records has been cut nearly in half, from 23 to 12 – and just this month, Everytown led a successful campaign to pass legislation in Arizona that improves the state’s record-sharing law.
“The news that 65 percent more gun sales have been blocked to seriously mentally ill individuals is proof of how important it is for states to submit their records and close the potentially fatal gaps in our background check system,” said John Feinblatt, President of Everytown for Gun Safety. “We’ve been calling attention to this problem for years – many states have heard our call but there are still too many states that are not doing their part to ensure that dangerous people cannot get their hands on guns and we know that it only takes one missing record to shatter a community.”
“A background check system is only as good as the records it contains – and my personal experience is proof of this fact,” said Colin Goddard, Senior Policy Advocate for Everytown and a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting. “There’s wide agreement among 90 percent of Americans that we need to keep guns out of the hands of people suffering from severe mental illness, which is why this jump in records submissions is a bipartisan success – driven by laws passed by Democratic and Republican legislatures and signed by governors of both parties.”
About the ‘Fatal Gaps’ in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System
Since 1993, federal law has required that prospective gun buyers pass a background check when shopping at a licensed gun dealer, a process that typically takes 90 seconds or less. Dangerous people, including anyone involuntarily committed to a mental institution or found to be a danger to self or others, are prohibited from buying guns — and as long as their records are in the system, they will fail the background check. Each year this system blocks thousands of seriously mentally ill people at the point of sale.
But shootings like the one on Virginia Tech’s campus illustrate in tragic fashion that a background check is only as good as the records in the system. States have failed to submit these records for decades, and while the new data shows many have made dramatic improvements in the last three years, there are still a number of states failing to submit records and leaving potentially fatal gaps in the background check system that will allow dangerous people to buy guns.
How States Are Closing the Gap: Federal Grants and State Record Reporting Laws
In states that lead the nation in mental health record submissions to NICS, two factors have been vitally important: state laws that explicitly authorize or require courts and mental hospitals to report records, and federal grants to help states improve their reporting infrastructure. Major progress has been made on both fronts since 2011.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns has consistently pressed states to adopt or strengthen the laws that require courts and mental health facilities to report mental health records to the background check system. Since November 2011, at least 18 states have passed new record-sharing statutes or have amended existing law in significant ways. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee. These new record-reporting laws have been signed by both Democratic and Republican governors, most recently by Governor Fallin in Oklahoma this month and Governor Brewer in Arizona this past April.
Ninety-seven percent of all records submitted in the most recent six months of available data were submitted by states that have laws in place. And 19 of the 20 states with the largest increase in submitted records had reporting laws. Conversely, among the 12 states with fewer than 100 total records reported as of November 2013, 11 had no such law in place at the time. As of May 2014, 11 states and the District of Columbia still lack record reporting laws.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns has also advocated for increased federal funding to help states bring reporting systems up to speed. This past January, President Obama signed the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, which includes a record $58.5 million for state grants to help states submit records to NICS, $40 million more than 2013 levels. This funding includes the NICS Act Record Improvement Program, which can only be awarded to states that take action to submit their mental health records. Twenty-two states have received this money since 2009, including most of the states with top performance in submitting records.
State Mental Health Record Submissions, By the Numbers
A few states stood out with large increases in mental health record submissions since the November 2011 Fatal Gaps release:
- Pennsylvania: 1 à 676,968
- New Jersey: 15 à 411,879
- Delaware 0 à 19,573
- Oregon: 3 à 29,659
- California: 279,589 à 563,458
Since the release of Fatal Gaps, the number of states that have reported fewer than 100 records each has been cut nearly in half, from 23 to 12. But the following states have still reported fewer than 100 mental health records to NICS:
- *Alaska (1 record)
- *Hawaii (1)
- *Louisiana (4)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Montana (3)
- New Hampshire (2)
- *North Dakota (1)
- *Oklahoma (25)
- Rhode Island (0)
- *South Dakota (3)
- Vermont (24)
- Wyoming (4)
*Notes that a state recently passed record reporting legislation to address missing records.