Shortly after the horrible shootings in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, U.S. Representative Tim Murphy passed along some helpful advice to parents who may have been dealing with their anxious and fearful children. Rep. Murphy was a child psychologist in the South Hills of Pittsburgh before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2002. In January, I sent an email to Rep. Murphy asking him to take the lead on the mental health issues that contribute to violence in our society, in order to prevent another Sandy Hook.
I’d like to share the lengthy response I received from my congressman with readers of The PediaBlog:
Dear Dr. Ketyer,
Thank you for contacting me to share your thoughts on federal regulation of firearms following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you on this issue.
Currently, the purchase of most firearms in Pennsylvania, whether at a licensed dealer or a gun show, is routed through the federal National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS). NICS, which is managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is designed to keep guns out of the hands of felons, illegal drug users, spousal abusers, and persons with a serious mental illness.
As Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I have undertaken a review of mental health and public safety, including the NICS system. My investigation has discovered several major gaps. For example, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that more than 1.5 million records for mentally ill persons are currently missing from the NICS database. Persons that have been committed to a mental institution or have been adjudicated as seriously mentally ill are prohibited under federal law from possessing or purchasing a firearm. These records are required by law to be included in the background check system to ensure the severely mentally ill are not approved for purchase of a firearm. However, states have simply not moved forward on uploading those records into the NICS database. Tragically, because these records were not uploaded, we’ve seen the terrible consequences that resulted in the loss of life. In 2007, the Virginia Tech shooter, who had been involuntarily committed for mental illness treatment, passed his background check and purchased firearms with devastating consequences because his mental health record was never uploaded to NICS. I’m working to fix this problem.
My investigation has also discovered other gaps in the federal system of firearms regulation. For example, individuals who have been ordered by a judge to attend court-ordered outpatient treatment for a mental illness are not required to be included in the NICS database. These individuals, who cycle through our courts, jails, and communities, are often most at risk of committing a violent act. I believe the background check system must include these individuals and I am working on that.
Some states like Pennsylvania have addressed these gaps by uploading mental health records into NICS without waiting for federal action. Like many states, Pennsylvania also requires a background check for sales of certain firearms at gun shows. But other states have argued federal privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevent the uploading of mental health records to the NICS database. The HIPPA legislation was never intended to serve as a barrier to firearms background checks, which is why on February 14, 2013, I wrote to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking her to address this apparent conflict in federal law. Because of my inquiry, HHS is now working to clarify the HIPPA rules.
As you can see, there is still need for federal action to ensure all states take action to enhance the NICS background check system by submitting the records of prohibited persons. Since this is not happening on a consistent basis, I will continue to work on fixing this issue by eliminating the deficiencies and flaws in our national background check system. I am committed to working with my colleagues to ensure the federal government takes action to keep firearms out of the hand of the violently mentally ill. Thank you again for contacting me on this issue and as the 113th session of Congress begins to take shape, I ask you to stay connected with me and continue our dialogue. If you would like to receive my email newsletter describing important votes and key committee activity, I invite you to visit my website at murphy.house.gov and sign up.
Congressman Murphy’s thoughtful and detailed response to my concerns makes a number of things clear:
- There are currently laws in Pennsylvania that provide background checks for gun purchasers. These laws — administered through the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) and managed by the FBI — have flaws that must be addressed and corrected.
- Some states are not forwarding crucial information to the NICS, including data regarding the mentally ill who are ordered by a court to receive outpatient therapy.
- Federal privacy rules that are designed to protect patient information (HIPAA) often interfere with the efficient uploading of data to the NICS.
- Compared to other states, Pennsylvania may be ahead of the curve in complying with current laws and regulations regarding background checks.
The other thing that’s clear is that Congressman-Doctor Murphy is leading in this effort to strengthen existing laws involving background checks. He wants what we all want: a safer society. He’s an expert in mental health and, whatever your politics, he is the person to lead.
I’m certain of one thing: he’s on it.
More PediaBlog on gun safety here, here, here, and here.
(Image: Patch worn by all Major League Baseball players on opening day, 2013. — NY Daily News.com)