The mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, once again sparked a national conversation about whether there is a clear link between gun violence and mental illness.
The teen shooter who took 17 lives with his legally-obtained AR-15 was reported to have a history of mental illness, but he wasn’t a “prohibited” person under state or federal laws.
Utah’s gun background check system is built to keep guns from anyone who might be dangerous to themselves or others, but the inconsistent and incomplete information sharing has made it difficult to prohibit all those who should be restricted.
Last year, 76 people were denied a firearm purchase in Utah after failing a background check because he/she was previously:
• Found not guilty by reason of insanity for a felony offense,
• Found mentally incompetent to stand trial for a felony offense,
• Adjudicated as mentally defective or has been committed to a mental institution under state law.
The state courts maintain the records and send them to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) every night, according to Geoffrey Fattah, Utah State Courts communication director. The BCI is a branch of the Utah Department of Public safety and is the state agency in charge of the nine databases used for state background checks.
But during the course of the Standard-Examiner’s inquiry into the state’s gun background check system, the IT department overseeing the state court system discovered the flow of information from the courts to BCI suddenly stopped in February 2017 after a system upgrade of the court database.
“For over a year, information on involuntary civil commitment and criminal incompetence has stopped coming from us,” Fattah said.
Roughly 900 civil and criminal cases sat in the court databases without being added to the state’s background check system, meaning those restricted people’s names would not be flagged during a firearms background check.
Fattah said the IT department has been working on packaging the records and getting them to BCI as quickly as possible.
HOW IT WORKS
Utah is among four states that collect mental health records for use in firearm purchaser background checks, but do not have a specific state statute on disclosing mental illness records to the FBI, according to the Giffords Law Center. While many states use the FBI’s background check system, Utah has its own.
The BCI voluntarily shares these records with the FBI, but not on a regular basis, according to Lance Tyler, director of the Brady Bill division at BCI. Typically, it sends those records over only when a prohibited person attempts to buy a gun and fails the background check. All it shares is a name and a birthdate, Tyler said, which is the minimum requirement.
There are two types of records related to mental illness that prohibit gun ownership: those adjudicated as mentally incompetent in criminal cases and those found incompetent through civil involuntary commitment process.
If a legally prohibited person tries to buy a gun, a background check should flag their name. If a name is flagged, BCI technicians first verify the name is in their database, then they contact the courts for more information to make sure a denial is warranted.
But verification isn’t easy or, oftentimes, even possible. And if the information can’t be confirmed absolutely, the BCI can’t deny the buyer a gun.
For years, the only information required for involuntary commitment was a name, which was not enough for BCI to identify any individual with certainty. As a result, people who should be legally prohibited from obtaining firearms could possibly have passed a Utah background check.
The state courts started collecting identifiable information on involuntary committals in 2013, when Utah passed a bill requiring the petitioner to provide the name, date of birth and social security number, according to SB 285.
There are thousands of cases entered into the database prior to the 2013 law that don’t have enough identifiable information for denial, according to Fattah.
While the FBI confirmed that the courts could submit records directly to the federal databases, Fattah said there has never been a direct information-sharing channel between the state courts and the FBI.
“From our end, we don’t send mental health records directly to NICS.” Fattah said. “BCI is the gatekeeper to determine whether or not to upload records.”
The NICS is the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Tyler, who has worked at BCI since 2003, said the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been sending records over on behalf of the courts to the FBI but Fattah said he’s never been aware of that information sharing.
To date, Tyler said, DPS has sent over more than 10,000 records to the FBI but it isn’t clear how many of those records have enough detail to be useful. The BCI has sent over an additional 191 records in the past 10 years, Tyler said.
Contact reporter Sheila Wang at 801-625-4252 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook @JournalistSheilaW or on Twitter @SheilaWang7.