Before Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 more at Virginia Tech in 2007, he was able to purchase firearms because his mental health history had not been reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Now, using federal grant money made available in response to that school massacre, Connecticut is creating a database of individuals who are disqualified from owning a gun for mental health reasons, part of a nationwide effort to strengthen the federal background check system by improving state reporting.
The new system captures both Probate and Superior Court records to include people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and those who have been found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty due to insanity. It is expected to be completed by July 1 and will comprise records from the past 14 years.
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State officials compiling the database say they have already found court records that would disqualify someone from owning a gun but were not submitted to the FBI's federal background check system. The initiative also strengthens future reporting to the NICS by allowing the state to submit names electronically to the FBI rather than transmitting paper records, a switch officials say will improve accuracy and efficiency.
"The goal of the project is to improve the completeness, automation and, very importantly, the transmission of mental health and court records used by federal and state law-enforcement authorities in conducting and reporting firearms eligibility determinations," said Anne C. McKinney, a former probate court judge who is overseeing the project for the Probate Courts.
Federal and state laws prohibit certain mentally ill people from owning a gun, and improving state reporting is among the proposals to strengthen the background check system that President Barack Obama and other gun control advocates called for in response to the Newtown massacre.
This database is funded by the federal government, through the NICS Act Record Improvement Program (NARIP), which was created as part of legislation enacted after the Virginia Tech shooting. In 2011 Connecticut received a NARIP grant to improve mental health reporting.
"We have used federal dollars to go back and search, any record that goes back that far, if they haven't been entered into the database for whatever reason, we're really scrubbing the list and making sure our names are accurate," said Vincent Russo, manager of communications and intergovernmental relations for the office of the probate court administrator.
Russo said the database will not be available to the general public because it contains confidential medical information. It will be available to both the FBI and several state agencies, including the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection's special licensing and firearms unit, the Department of Mental Health and Addictions Services and the Judicial Branch. Local police issuing firearms permits also will be able to use the system.
Proponents of the new initiative say mental health records are the least likely to disqualify someone from owning a gun, but also the least likely among the disqualifying factors to be submitted to the federal background check system. The state already mandates reporting of these records, but they are submitted in paper form — state officials fax and manually key in data.
"It is eliminating that whole idea of faxing and any human error that will occur," said Russo. "As soon as a court makes the finding of mental incapacity, it's entered into our computer electronic system and automatically sent to a database. … That information is updated daily to public safety and to the federal government."
For gun control advocates, that new reporting model reflects an important step toward keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Mayors Against Illegal Guns previously criticized Connecticut's former system because the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, responsible for submitting the relevant records, is not audited. Under the new system, the federal government will have automatic access to the data.