There’s a form to fill out when you purchase a firearm at a gun shop: Form 4473. On page 1, question 11-F, “Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective or committed to a mental institution?”
Stan Holz, owner of Village Gun Store in the town of Whitefield, knows that not everyone answers truthfully.
“We had a gentleman, middle aged, well dressed gentleman, suit and tie. I remember it very well. And he bought a Smith and Wesson 9mm handgun. Passed his background check. Left the store. And I received a call later that day from the Berlin Police, that the gentleman was standing in a street shooting his gun in the air.”
It turns out, the guy was on a weekend pass from a mental institution.
So, here we arrive at perhaps the only middle ground in the gun debate. Everyone agrees that this man shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun. But in New Hampshire, mental health adjudications, where a court finds someone dangerous enough to themselves or others to place them in a psychiatric hospital: that information doesn’t get screened during gun background checks.
New Hampshire isn’t alone…more than a dozen states including Massachusetts don’t share mental health records with the FBI’s criminal background check system.
Number of Mental Health Records Submitted Per State, Through October, 2011 (source: Mayors Against Illegal Guns)
And it’s not like law enforcement doesn’t want this information.
“Sure, anything that would keep a handgun from a person who is disqualified would certainly be a benefit to the State Police and the citizens of New Hampshire,” says Sargent Sean Haggerty, who is in charge of hand gun licensing for the State Police.
Under the current system, all the records for involuntary commitments are stored by the New Hampshire Courts. No one from the judicial branch would speak on tape for this story, but in a statement, officials said they don’t believe they have the authority to pass along records. While they do share domestic violence convictions, there is no explicit state law that permits sharing of mental health adjudications.
A proposed bill in 2002 attempted to address this issue: it died in committee.
So the files just sit there.
And that’s okay with Richard Cohen. He’s Executive Director of the Disabilities Rights Center.
“Both HIPAA rights and constitutional privacy rights are both at stake here.”
Cohen argues that to infringe upon the civil liberties of mentally ill people requires compelling justification.
“Because people with mental illness are citizens and have rights like everyone else, and that is the right to bear arms, right to privacy, etc., you need to be very sure that you are only including those people who are really likely to obtain a gun and then use a gun against someone else. And under our current standards, that isn’t the case.”
He says that while hundreds of people in New Hampshire are committed to mental institutions each year, very few are actually dangerous. And psychiatrists, he says, have no reliable way of predicting who will become violent.
“You know, 1 out of every 5 people in this country have mental illness. One out of every 20 has a serious mental illness. If people are saying that all persons with mental illness shouldn’t have guns, whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, that is completely ignorant.”
Cohen says mentally ill people who are committed are at least getting treatment. Many of the recent nationally high profile shootings involved men unknown to the system.
They wouldn’t have been blocked from buying a firearm.
None of this is very comforting to gun shop owners like Stan Holz.
“I think every licensed dealer would probably have the same reaction. We don’t want to sell guns to people who shouldn’t own guns. And someone who is mentally unstable to the point of being potentially dangerous is someone who shouldn’t have access to a firearm. I don’t think anyone can argue that.”
Of course, even if states like New Hampshire do start sharing mental health records in some form, the mentally unstable have other options for obtaining firearms. Private sales, like those at gun shows, don’t undergo any background checks.