Wednesday, October 18, 2023

State MH Reporting Requirements Vary for Firearm Background Checks

States vary widely in the reporting of mental health data to the federal system known as NICS that conducts background checks on people who want to own a firearm, a study appearing in JAMA Internal Medicine has found.

“Firearm access by individuals with mental illness is associated with increased risk of suicide or homicide,” wrote Deirdre Brown, J.D., Ph.D., of Seattle University School of Law and colleagues. “Although NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] is intended to be a nationwide database, the substantial variability in reporting requirements across states suggests that the intended purpose of the NICS is hampered,” they wrote.

Brown and colleagues used the Thomson Reuters Westlaw database to identify and collect data on each state’s laws regarding mental health reporting requirements between February and April 2022. They analyzed data on whether the states required reporting to NICS, how many requirements the states imposed, and the type of mental health and/or substance use–related events that were required to be reported.

State laws were inconsistent as to whether data were provided to NICS: 39 states required reporting, five permitted reporting, three required reporting to a state agency but were silent about reporting to NICS, and three states had no reporting laws.

Moreover, the number and type of mental illness or substance use–related varied from state to state:

  • 16 states required reports of individuals being adjudicated incompetent to manage affairs or having a guardian appointment, and 24 states required reports of being incompetent to stand trial.
  • 40 states required reporting of individuals who were involuntary committed to hospitalization, 23 states required reports of individuals being found not guilty by reason of insanity, and 18 states required reporting of individuals receiving involuntary outpatient treatment.
  • 13 states required reporting of individuals who have received treatment for a substance use disorder, five states required reports of individuals voluntarily hospitalized, and one state required reports of individuals who voluntarily seek outpatient treatment.

Brown and colleagues cited a 2016 report that showed that preventing the purchase of firearms increased exponentially in states with increased requirements to report mental health to NICS. They said NICS’ reliability and utility would improve with national standards.

“A more robust approach is needed to ensure that critical information about individuals with mental health risks is accurately shared with the NICS,” they wrote. “It is imperative to identify consistent reporting strategies to prevent those in crisis from accessing firearms.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Multiple Barriers Inhibit Civilian Use of Red Flag Laws, Study Shows.”

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