Obama administration pushes to strengthen background checks on mentally ill gun buyers

The Obama administration on Friday announced two executive actions to try to strengthen federal background checks and prevent guns from ending up in the hands of mentally ill people who pose a danger to others.

The Department of Justice proposed a regulation to clarify who is prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons. Officials believe it will help states determine what information can be shared with the background-check system to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who are considered potentially violent.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to loosen legal barriers that may prevent states from submitting information on the mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NICS system is used to check the backgrounds of those who buy guns from a federally licensed gun dealer in order to ensure that they are not legally prohibited from owning a gun.

“The administration’s two new executive actions will help ensure that better and more reliable information makes its way into the background check system,” the White House said in a statement. “While the vast majority of Americans who experience a mental illness are not violent, in some cases when persons with a mental illness do not receive the treatment they need, the result can be tragedies such as homicide or suicide.”

In recent years, several mass shootings have been linked to gunmen with a history of mental illness, includingAdam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012; and Jared Loughner, who killed six people and injured 13 others, including former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, nearly three years ago in Tucson.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who was shot and injured in Tucson, praised President Obama’s actions for “going a long way to make the system better,” but said that congressional action is still needed to prevent felons and certain people with mental illness from getting guns.

“Ultimately, we need legislation to expand the background check system to people who buy guns at gun shows and on the Internet,” Barber said.

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization would not comment until it could review the proposals.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said her department’s proposal would modify the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to allow the disclosure of the identities of people prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm because of mental health reasons.

“Some states are currently under-reporting or not reporting certain information” for the federal background check system, Sebelius said.

The Justice Department said it was clarifying the categories of people who cannot obtain a firearm, including those found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty because of a mental defect.

“We are taking an important, commonsense step to clarify the federal firearms regulations, which will strengthen our ability to keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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