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Anti-gun group criticizes Florida mental illness reporting

6:52 AM, Apr 8, 2013   |    comments
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( -- More than 73,000 Floridians are currently unable to pass a federal background check to buy a gun because of mental illness.

A coalition of mayors promoting gun control says tens of thousands more state residents should be ruled ineligible as well.

The issue revolves around how aggressively Florida and other states share mental health records with federal authorities maintaining the government database that gun dealers check before processing a sale.

A person who's been found by a court to be mentally ill is generally barred from buying a gun if their name appears on the database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Since its creation in 1999, NICS has blocked more than 1.9 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, people with seriously mental health problems, drug abusers and other dangerous people prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms.

As many as 1.5 million people ruled mentally unfit to own a gun don't appear on the NICS database, according to some estimates. That's largely because many states haven't been diligent in making federal authorities aware of them, according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition.

The group of more than 900 mayors, led by Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Thomas Menino of Boston, includes 48 mayors from Florida.

Why it's a focus
As Congress prepares to take up gun control measures pushed by President Barack Obama, tighter background checks are emerging as an area of potential compromise, given broad public support for such action.

More than nine of 10 Florida voters support universal background checks for gun purchases, according to a poll released last month by Quinnipiac University. The poll echoed similar findings in other states Quinnipiac has surveyed.

The National Rifle Association - which opposes expanding background checks - said there are too many holes in the system.

"We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told NBC after December's massacre in Newtown, Conn. "Twenty-three states are still putting only a small number of records into the system, and a lot of states are putting none."

The federal government can't require states to submit records to NCIS. But many stepped up efforts after a student shot and killed 32 and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech in 2007.

A Virginia judge had found the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, mentally ill in 2005. But that record wasn't submitted to NICS, enabling Cho to pass background checks to purchase the handguns he used.

Florida officials say they are taking steps to beef up background checks.

Florida submitted 73,847 records to the federal database between 2007, when it began sending the records, and Feb. 4, according to Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. About 24,000 of those records were submitted after October last year.

But Florida lags behind other large states in submitting records to NICS, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

As of October, Pennsylvania (643,167), California (510,779), Texas (209,150) and New York (186,999) had submitted a significantly larger number than the 49,903 Florida reported at the time, according to the report.

The group said Florida should have provided at least 107,000 records based on what those other states have been doing.

"For background checks to be effective, states need to submit millions of missing records to the national background check databases," the report concludes. "Every missing record is another tragedy waiting to happen."

Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he's not surprised the state has moved more slowly than others.

"It's just the attitude up in Tallahassee. They're not terribly excited about doing these things," he said. "This is the biggest gun-rights state in the United States."

Vague wording?
Ron Honberg, legal director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the federal government needs to clarify which types of mental health records states should report.

"It's possible some states are over-reporting, and it certainly appears that some states are under-reporting or not reporting at all," Honberg said. "The big reason behind that is that the federal law ... uses terminology that nobody understands."

For example, he said, the law bars people who have been adjudicated as mentally defective from buying guns, but neither "adjudicated" nor "mentally defective" is defined.

It's a difficult issue for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which believes disproportionate blame is placed on the mentally ill when mass shootings occur. The group points to a 1999 report on mental illness by the U.S. surgeon general that concluded mental disorders make an "exceptionally small" contribution to the total level of violence in society.

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