In the four years since Centreville’s Seung Hui Cho went on a murder rampage at Virginia Tech, after previously being ordered into mental health treatment, Virginia has become the top state in the nation for submitting mental health records to a national database for background checks of gun purchases, new FBI records show.
As of May 1, Virginia had submitted more than 151,000 mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the highest rate per capita and third behind only California and New York in raw numbers. But some states and federal agencies still can’t be bothered, statistics show, including Maryland, which has submitted only 53 mental health records, and D.C. with 80. Six states, including Pennsylvania, have submitted zero records to the database, where they are joined in non-participatory status by many federal agencies such as the four branches of the military, the CIA, the ATF and the Department of Health and Human Services.
All those zeroes are particularly troubling to the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the coalition launched by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness or substance abuse problems, such as alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner.
“Tucson shocked the nation,” Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the mayors’ coalition co-chair, said in a news release, “and yet five months later, most states and federal agencies are still failing to do the minimum to protect public safety.”
Virginia already had a database in place before the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. But one of the positives that emerged from that tragedy was that it was improved and better used in the aftermath, mayors’ coalition executive director Mark Glaze said Monday.
“Virginia did the best thing you can do after a terrible tragedy,” Glaze said. “It got its act together and now leads the nation. Other states should look to it as an example before the next tragedy happens.”
Omar Samaha of Arlington, whose sister Reema was killed at Virginia Tech, said in a news release by the mayors’ coalition that “it’s time for Congress to take action to fix the background check system so no other family has to suffer like the Virginia Tech families have suffered.” Samaha has been criss-crossing the country drumming up support for legislation that would require background checks by private gun sellers at gun shows.
Virginia had a centralized mental health database dating back to 1995, but sharing of those records was not uniform. Cho’s records in Blacksburg, for example, weren’t shared with the national database, allowing him to pass background checks and buy the guns he later used on campus.
After the shootings, Gov. Tim Kaine signed an executive order in 2007 directing state agencies to make reports to a central state exchange, and the General Assembly in 2008 required that records from the state exchange be sent to the national database. The big changes in both of those acts were that they ensured that involuntary treatment records be shared, even if the person was not actually committed, such as Cho.
Of the 10 states with the greatest number of mental health records submittted, eight of them have laws or formal policies requiring the sharing of mental health records with the national database. Of the states with poor records, many have trouble with the funding necessary to track and submit such records, and they also must install a process that allows people to get themselves out of the database, Glaze said.
It’s not clear to mayors’ coalition officials why the federal government has trouble submitting records, and Glaze said it’s impossible to estimate how many mental health records the feds may actually have. Comparing federal and state contributions is an apples-and-oranges matter in that state courts and agencies do most of the commitment of mentally ill people, ut Glaze said it seems implausible that agencies such as the military don’t have some record of mentally ill people who shouldn’t have guns.
A memorandum by then-Attorney General Janet Reno in 1994 exempted the Defense Department from providing information about recruits who failed drug tests, which apparently accounted for Loughner’s absence from the do-not-sell list in the national database, Glaze said.