WASHINGTON — Despite its reputation as a state with strong gun-control laws, Massachusetts for more than a decade has not provided mental health records to an FBI database for gun background checks, the result of a 43-year-old state law prohibiting such sharing.
Massachusetts has submitted just one mental health record to the federal database since 1999 — apparently as a test — at the same time that the FBI has processed 1.6 million background checks of Bay State residents who seek to buy guns from federally licensed dealers. The situation has sparked concerns that firearms could fall into the hands of the mentally ill.
Governor Deval Patrick has twice tried unsuccessfully to get legislative approval for the sharing of mental health data. Both attempts failed to gain traction in the state Legislature amid opposition from gun-rights activists.
The governor renewed the effort earlier this month when he proposed universal background checks that include mental health information. Supporters said that momentum for revising the measure may have reached a tipping point in the wake of the shooting of 26 people in Newtown, Conn.
“You have to have state legislation to authorize the release of that information,” Patrick said in an interview. “I’ve filed legislation in the past, and I filed it again last week.”
Failure to share such records could lead to firearms in the hands of the mentally ill, potentially endangering lives, said state Representative David Linsky. In 2007, for example, the mass shooter who left 32 dead at Virginia Tech would have presumably been flagged had Virginia submitted its mental health records to the database.
“Right now, when somebody in Massachusetts tries to buy a gun or obtain a license, mental health history isn’t even taken into account,” the Natick Democrat said.
Under federal law, an individual deemed “a mental defective” in court or involuntarily committed to a mental institution cannot purchase firearms. To prevent such people from buying guns, the FBI can match mental health records of prospective buyers at federally licensed vendors through a database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Created in November 1998, the registry has helped deny guns to about 1.5 million illegal buyers.
But to make that system effective, state governments must share data that include proof of citizenship, criminal and drug abuse histories, and mental health records.
While some states have taken the initiative in either organizing or requiring state agencies and courts to share mental health information, a handful including Massachusetts have lagged behind, leaving the system’s archive of mental health data wrought with holes.
California has shared more than a half-million records, and states including Texas, Virginia, and New York have submitted hundreds of thousands more. Fourteen states, however, shared less than five mental health records, and Massachusetts has submitted only one, according to a Mayors Against Illegal Guns report. It also noted that Massachusetts is one of 22 states that do not have official policies enabling or requiring the submission of such information.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns is cochaired by Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston and has called for states to pass laws permitting or requiring the submission of mental health information to an FBI database.
“Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, but there’s always more we can do,” Menino said in a statement. “Not every person is fit to purchase a gun.”
Patrick sponsored bills in 2009 and 2011 requiring state courts and agencies to share with the NICS all relevant background information, including mental health records. But the bills — similar to one proposed in 2011 by Linsky — failed to make it out of committee.
The Northborough-based Gun Owners’ Action League — the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association — led opposition to the legislation, arguing that the proposals did a poor job of defining mental illness, executive director Jim Wallace said. But the group is “absolutely in favor” of keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, he said.
“The major problem is that there’s no definition of what ‘confined’ means,” Wallace said, referring to the law prohibiting gun ownership among those confined to mental institutions. At issue is whether the NICS would receive all mental health data held by courts and state agencies, including those detailing voluntary treatment, or just records of involuntary, court-ordered commitments.
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.
Matt Viser of the Globe Washington bureau contributed to this report. David Uberti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.