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.