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A challenge for Obama’s anti-gun-violence reforms: Mental-health data prove elusive

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President Obama, in trying to curb gun violence, is pushing for improved mental-health serv­ices, a revival of gun-related research and beefed-up reporting about potentially dangerous people who shouldn’t own guns — efforts that are likely to rely heavily on the states and the public health sector.

The White House and the National Rifle Association agree that fixing flaws in the nation’s mental-health system could reduce violence. Still, finding common ground for Obama’s prescriptions has proved elusive in the past.

The challenge is especially apparent in the administration’s attempt to strengthen the 14-year-old federal background ­database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, and maintained by the FBI. It is used to ensure that people buying guns are not seriously mentally ill, felons, drug offenders or perpetrators of domestic violence.

Obama directed federal agencies Wednesday to supply records to the database and called for increased funding for states to do the same. But similar efforts to fill holes in the background-check system, even in the wake of past deadly shootings, have fallen short.

Any meaningful changes will require increased cooperation and voluntary efforts from individual states, many of which have spotty records in submitting information.

The federal database lacks the names of millions of people who should not own guns because they have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, are drug offenders or have a history of domestic violence.

“The system looks like Swiss cheese,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “It stops a lot of bad guys from getting guns, but it lets a lot of bad guys through. Every ­mental-health record that isn’t in the system is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in another community.”

A 2011 study by the group found that while some states such as New York had submitted hundreds of thousands of records to the federal database, other states had lagged. Seventeen states had submitted fewer than 10 mental-health records, and four states had submitted none.

Virginia, according to the report, now leads the country in mental-health records submitted per capita, reflecting major changes put in place in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.

According to Virginia State Police, who supply the information to NICS, the state had provided data on more than 175,000 cases as of July 2012.

As of 2011, Maryland has shared 2,975 mental-health records with NICS, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office of crime control and prevention. Maryland law currently prohibits sharing of broader mental-health records, including civil commitments, guardianships and findings of developmental disability, although expanded information sharing for the purpose of firearms background checks could come before the state legislature this year.

In the summer, a Government Accountability Office report found that from 2004 to 2011, states had submitted vastly more numbers to the national background database than they had in preceding years. The increase, however, was due largely to the efforts of a dozen states. Nearly half of all states made little or no progress in filling the void of mental-health records in the background database.

Some states have expressed concern about violating privacy laws by submitting mental-health records, a worry Obama tried to ease Wednesday. Other states have complained about outdated technology and a lack of resources to enter the records.

In the wake of the massacre at Virginia Tech, Congress passed legislation aimed at improving NICS by providing grants to states to help upgrade their technology and hire more staff to put relevant records into the national database. But in a concession to the NRA, states were eligible for the money only if they agreed to put in place a system that allowed people to appeal to have their gun-ownership rights reinstated. Many states have yet to put such a process in place.

Obama’s actions Wednesday took aim at much more than the national background check system, and he made a point of noting that “someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.”

The president directed federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct or sponsor research into the causes behind gun violence. The agency should be asking four basic questions, said Mark Rosenberg, who headed the agency’s division that studied gun violence in the 1990s: Who gets shot? What are the causes? What are the risk factors? What works to prevent gun deaths and injuries?

The most critical piece, he said, is determining whether programs such as gun registration and waiting periods reduce risk. “They’re very expensive and very hard to do, and that’s why the federal government needs to be involved,” he said.

Such research has largely vanished since the 1990s, when the NRA pushed Congress to cut funding for the CDC division that studied gun violence.

“We don’t benefit from ignorance,” Obama said. “We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”

Other restrictions in current years have included a provision in the 2010 health-care law that limited the ability of doctors to gather data about patients’ gun use, and a separate measure that prohibited the National Institutes of Health from funding studies that “advocate or promote gun control.”

“It’s a great first step,” Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists said of the president’s directive. “It’s important for the executive branch to tell researchers that their work is valued and will be protected.”

Still, he said, the White House action could fall flat unless lawmakers on Capitol Hill also express support for researchers to delve deeper into gun-related studies.

Some of the mental-health­related proposals put forward by the White House will need the blessing of Congress. Among them: $50 million to train 5,000 mental-health professionals serving children and young adults and another $50 million to aid young people and students facing mental-health, substance-abuse or anxiety problems.

Obama also said he would take action to ensure that Medicaid recipients get quality mental-health coverage, finalize requirements for private health insurance plans to cover mental-health services, and dispatch Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to launch a national dialogue on mental-health issues.

Alice R. Crites and Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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