Obama Seeks Tighter Mental Health Restrictions on Guns

The Obama administration took steps to tighten gun background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill as the president’s broader gun-control proposals remain stalled in Congress.

The White House said yesterday that the Justice and Health and Human Services Departments were proposing changes in regulations to clarify who under U.S. law is prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons. The proposals would also make it easier for states to submit information about the mentally ill to the background check system.

“The administration is committed to making sure that anyone who may pose a danger to themselves or others does not have access to a gun,” according to the White House statement. “The federal background check system is the most effective way to assure that such individuals are not able to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer.”

Unable to win passage of gun-control legislation after the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, President Barack Obama said last year he would begin using executive authority to tighten firearms regulation.

The administration’s actions reflect a July 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office that found some states required explicit authority to share information on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System under the privacy protections in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

‘Carefully Balanced’

“There is a strong public safety need for this information to be accessible to the NICS, and some states are currently under-reporting or not reporting certain information to the NICS at all,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement released yesterday. “This proposed rulemaking is carefully balanced to protect and preserve individuals’ privacy interests, the patient-provider relationship, and the public’s health and safety.”

Among the findings in the GAO report: As of October 2011, 17 states and five U.S. territories had submitted fewer than 10 records of individuals prohibited from owning a gun because of mental health issues.

A Justice Department statement said it’s proposing to make clear that firearm possession would be banned for people found incompetent to stand trial, not guilty by reason of mental disease, guilty but mentally ill or lacking mental responsibility. Such findings could be made by a federal, state, local or military court. Also covered would be people committed for involuntary inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Support Slipping

National support for gun-control measures slipped to 49 percent in a CNN poll conducted Nov. 18-20, the lowest since 1996. Last January, a month after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 55 percent said they supported stricter gun laws.

The Senate failed to advance expanded background checks for gun buyers, a stripped-down version of Obama’s proposals. The president also sought bans on military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, such as the Bushmaster rifle and 30-round clips used in the Connecticut shootings.

The measure remains stalled because of opposition by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbying group, which said that expanding mandatory background checks to private sales at gun shows and over the Internet would lead to a government registry of gun owners.

Common Ground

The one area where Republicans such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have shown a willingness to work with Democrats on guns is on mental health. Gun-rights supporters have argued that firearms violence in the U.S. stems from the nation’s inability to deal with individuals with mental illness rather than widespread access to weapons.

The regulations are a “great first step,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, which had recommended adding involuntary outpatient commitment to the list of conditions disqualifying individuals from buying or possessing firearms.

Though Congress has deadlocked on gun issues, Horwitz said the moves are the beginning of a process that could include additional steps by the Obama administration and action by individual states to tighten their laws. “There are a lot of things the administration can accomplish,” he said.

The group supports restrictions on people convicted of violent misdemeanors, those who have a domestic violence-based restraining order against them and individuals who have had convictions based on substance abuse.

Executive Action

Obama, after a review of proposals that was led by Vice President Joe Biden, announced in January of last year 23 executive actions he would advance to curb gun violence.

They included action in August to ban the re-importation of military weapons sold abroad and to close a loophole that would potentially let felons evade background checks and buy arms such as machine guns by registering weapons to trusts or corporations. The sharing of mental health records also was part of the January announcement.

Both sides in the gun-control debate saw victories in 2013, with 28 states passing laws lifting firearms restrictions and 21 plus the District of Columbia expanding them. New York, which had tight gun laws, made them stronger, while Alabama, with looser regulations, made access easier. Seven states passed laws permitting guns in elementary schools.

The White House statement renewed Obama’s call for legislation to expand background checks for firearms ownership and making gun trafficking a federal crime.

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