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Federal database for mental health background checks incomplete

Obama And Biden Unveil Proposal To Decrease Gun Violence In U.S.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: U.S. President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders about the administration's new gun law proposals as children who wrote letters to the White House about gun violence, (L-R) Hinna Zeejah, Taejah Goode, Julia Stokes and Grant Fritz, look on in the Eisenhower Executive Office building January 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. One month after a massacre that left 20 school children and 6 adults dead in Newtown, Connecticut, the president unveiled a package of gun control proposals that include universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Among President Barack Obama's executive actions on gun control Wednesday was a pledge to address “unnecessary legal barriers” in health care privacy laws that he said may be preventing states from reporting people with mental illnesses to a federal background check database.


Under federal law, people with significant mental illnesses can't own guns, according to attorney Lindsay Nichols.

"Those include individuals who’ve been committed to a mental hospital. It also includes individuals who’ve been determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others," said public interest lawyer Lindsay Nichols.

But, she said, this database is incomplete. The Government Accountability Office reported in July that the database has 1.2 million records in it, well short of the approximately 3 million it should contain.

That, Nichols said, is because many states choose not to share some or all of their records with the federal government. Some states cite the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—HIPAA—or other privacy laws for their reasoning.

But Nichols said that's an excuse. States that don't share records are led by politicians who oppose gun control.

California shares more mental health records with the federal government than any other state, accounting for about a quarter of the database. The state also has its own laws about who should be excluded from owning a gun due to mental illness.

“Our laws are more restrictive in California," said Charles Dempsey, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department's mental evaluation unit.

His officers respond to calls about mental health crises. In many cases, the person in question is put on a 72-hour involuntary mental health hold.

“The city averages approximately 600 mental health holds a month," Dempsey said. "Every time there’s a mental health hold and the person’s accepted by the hospital, that paperwork is [sent] to the Department of Justice.”

And that’s enough to be restricted from buying a gun in California. The state sends those  names to the federal database.

President Obama is hoping more states will follow California’s model. On Wednesday,  he suggested giving states additional financial incentives to share the information.

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