Examining Mental Health History in Background Checks for Firearms

The recent shooting in Arizona has called into question the use of mental health history in background checks for guns. On a national level, a federal law in place since 1968 prohibits the sale of guns to those deemed “mentally unfit,” and each state is supposed to supply mental health records to an FBI database. States, however, are slow in giving this information, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, and the National Center for State Courts believes the number of mental health records should be double what it currently is.

But what counts as “mentally unfit” and why was Jared Lee Loughner able to pass a background check? Although background checks in Arizona have increased after the shooting, not everyone needs to pass a background screening to purchase a firearm and only certain types of mental history – being committed or being “mentally defective” – show up, if they are reported by states at all. The Wall Street Journal piece mentions someone with a mental health record can purchase a firearm at a gun show or from an unlicensed dealer.

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal cites the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007 as an incident of slow state reporting. While neither a diagnosis nor voluntary commitment shows up on a background check, the shooter in the Virginia Tech Massacre had been declared dangerous by a local court and ordered to undergo treatment. The state, however, never sent this record to a background check system.

Considering the significant amount of loopholes examined after the shooting in Arizona, from slow to no mental health reporting by the state to unlicensed dealers to a narrow definition of “mentally unfit,” reporting mental health history for background checks may need several revisions to be effective – or be completely overhauled.