Politics & Government

NC doubles reporting of mentally ill to federal gun database

A display of pistols at Blackstone Shooting Sports.
A display of pistols at Blackstone Shooting Sports. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

In the first half of the year, North Carolina officials doubled the number of people reported to a federal database because they are mentally ill and shouldn’t have a gun, according to FBI data released by a gun control group.

That increase, experts say, is part of a national trend that reflects at least one area of gun legislation over which gun rights and gun control advocates have found common ground.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the number of mental health records North Carolina shared with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System grew from 63,000 to more than 120,000 from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The nationwide bump in record-sharing with NICS has been on the climb since the Newtown, Conn., shooting in 2012, according to Everytown, which obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Act request. The group reports that states sent more than 2.1 million records to federal authorities over the past three years, more than doubling the number of mental health records in the system.

Federal licensed gun dealers use the database to determine if they can sell firearms. Other factors include being under indictment for a crime punishable by a year or more in prison or illegally using controlled substances.

About 46 states have steadily increased the number of reports they share, including North Carolina, Everytown reports.

Driving the boosts, researchers say, are stronger state laws that address the timeliness and accuracy of reporting mental health rulings to federal authorities.

Gun laws nationwide have come under scrutiny after a husband-wife duo opened fire on a holiday party full of county employees this month in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 and wounding 21 others. Authorities said the couple expressed their commitment to Islamic extremists in private online messages.

There’s no evidence that mental illness was a factor in the attack.

But in Newtown, Adam Lanza had struggled with mental illness before killing 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Even if the mass shooter is seriously disturbed and has a mental illness, they’re really atypical of people with mental illness.

Jeffrey Swanson, Duke University professor

“I don’t have any problem with (the mentally ill) being barred from owning guns, except in as far as the category of mental defectives isn’t exploited to ban increasingly large segments of the population from owning guns,” said Paul Valone, president of pro-gun group Grass Roots North Carolina.

But some say mental illness has unfairly been attributed to a string of violent shootings within the past few years.

“Even if the mass shooter is seriously disturbed and has a mental illness, they’re really atypical of people with mental illness,” said Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Duke University. “I’m all for having comprehensive reporting, but I don’t think we should be under the illusion that is going to solve the problem. It doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people at risk of perpetrating gun crimes.”

‘Middle of the pack’

The FBI data cited by Everytown suggests North Carolina is on par with states such as New York and Iowa, which also saw large reporting increases. But a look at gun laws overall shows the state lags on certain measures.

Compared with California, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and states “extremely friendly to gun rights,” like Arizona and Alaska, North Carolina is in the “middle of the pack,” Valone said.

But gun control advocates say on some measures, North Carolina’s laws are some of the weakest in the nation.

On top of failing to require background checks to purchase long guns, such as assault rifles, it does little to regulate firearms dealers and doesn’t require gun owners to safely store their weapons, said Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a California-based advocacy group.

The center gave North Carolina an “F” on its gun laws scorecard. Twenty-six other states got the same grade.

“There’s a lot that North Carolina doesn’t do that many states do,” Nichols said. “Some states have significantly stronger regulation of guns, and that makes a big difference.”

A lot of states have (reporting) laws on the books but they aren’t actually doing it.

Lindsay Nichols, attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

Greater reporting efforts

Nichols credits the state with toughening requirements for notifying federal officials who should be barred from getting guns. In 2013, state lawmakers passed a bill that requires county clerks of Superior Court to submit mental health adjudications to NICS within 48 hours of a judge’s ruling. The National Rifle Association supported the law.

“A lot of states have (reporting) laws on the books, but they aren’t actually doing it,” Nichols said. North Carolina is “somewhat special in that they’re actually doing it.”

Contrast that with Wyoming, which in 2012 led the nation in the rate of suicide deaths by firearm, according to a report by the Wyoming Department of Health. The state submitted only four mental health adjudications to NICS during the first six months of 2015, Everytown reports.

Other states that submitted less than 100 records include Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont and Oklahoma.

Federal law doesn’t force states to report the identities of the mentally ill to NICS. But after several high-profile mass shootings, several states bolstered reporting standards.

Restraining order in NC?

Some states, though, have taken mental illness safeguards a step farther. California last year adopted the gun violence restraining order, which allows family members to petition a judge to confiscate a relative’s firearms for up to a year if they fear the person is dangerous. Connecticut and Indiana have similar laws that only allow law enforcement to make the request.

Gun control advocates hail California’s move. Jonas Oransky, an attorney with Everytown, said it’s a model other states should adopt.

“We are definitely fans of the law and worked to help get it across the finish line,” he said, adding he expects the group and its affiliate, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to help push similar laws in other states next year.

Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg Democrat who supports tougher gun laws, said he would back a bill similar to California’s if it ever got introduced in North Carolina. He voted against the 2013 bill because he felt it did not address the “root cause of mental health and firearm safety.”

“That bill …tightened some things up, but we still didn’t get to the problems,” he said. “There has to be some common-sense legislation.”

But gun rights advocates say a restraining order on guns could be the start of a slippery slope.

“This is just a new way they’re pushing gun control through (what) we feel like is a due process violation,” said Amy Hunter, spokeswoman with the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “It’s done in such a way that a person does not get to speak for themselves.”

Valone, of Grass Roots North Carolina, said the idea of a restraining order might sound good in theory but “in reality, in all probability, the proposal itself would merely be another attempt to restrict as many people as possible from owning firearms.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov