The bill Patrick recently unveiled not only called again for data-sharing with the federal NICS system, but it also sought to close the so-called “gun show loophole” allowing private purchases without background checks. The legislation mirrored the position of President Obama, whose gun control proposals included millions of dollars in incentives for states to participate in the system.
Massachusetts’ infrastructure to share mental health records with the federal database is in place, allowing for a more seamless transition to full participation if, and when, legislation is passed, said Curtis Wood, a senior official with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
“Having that type of information available is paramount to public safety,” Wood said.
Some advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, however, are wary of expanding the NICS database, contending that it could jeopardize privacy and further stigmatize the mentally ill.
Obama tried to allay those concerns last week.
“We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence — even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator,” he said.
The state first crafted policies for mental health records in 1895, and the 1970 Mental Health Reform Act established the provision ensuring patient privacy. Although the law forbids the state from submitting such records to the NICS, the state Department of Mental Health does share some data with local police forces that distribute gun permits, officials said. But it represents only a small piece of the statewide mental health picture.
The department distributes records from the facilities it operates, which admit about 1,200 patients a year, according to an agency official. But only a portion of those individuals are involuntarily committed — the criteria barring gun ownership. Private facilities in Massachusetts admit more than 70,000 patients annually, presenting a much larger number of potential gun buyers and leaving law enforcement agencies statewide in the dark.
“Most states have made little to no progress in this area,” said author Carol Cha, acting director for homeland security and justice issues at the federal Government Accountability Office.
But there have been some improvements to the database, much of it after the Virginia Tech shooting, when Congress passed an NICS improvement bill to help fund data-sharing initiatives. Though more than $50 million in grants have been awarded since 2009, only 18 states have received funding, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Eligibility for the federal money requires a system to legally reinstate individuals’ firearm privileges, however, one that Massachusetts currently lacks.
Boston’s police commissioner, Edward Davis, called both the proposals from the president and Patrick “a step in the right direction.”
“If someone asks us to provide them with a license to carry a firearm, there should be a place to go to vet that name so we know they don’t have a history of mental illness,” Davis said.
Davis recalled the August 2011 murder of wheelchair-bound William Thomas, shot in his Brighton home by a neighbor with a history of mental illness. Boston police had previously issued the killer his gun permit, Davis said.