State lawmakers on both sides of the gun debate will soon decide if the time is right to take steps to tighten Georgia’s gun law.
Under a long-standing law, the records of thousands of Georgians who were involuntarily committed for mental health treatment have been removed from a national database that gun dealers use to run background checks of buyers. That database is the only tool that gun dealers have to tell them when someone isn’t allowed to buy a gun.
All states are required to submit names to the FBI's National Instant Background Check System of people who have been involuntarily hospitalized for mental health, drug or alcohol treatment. Licensed gun dealers must check that list before making a sale.
Georgia is the only state in the nation that removes names from the database after five years, with no new mental health assessment required. Since 2013, Georgia has purged 2,014 names from the FBI’s database.
Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, filed Senate Bill 99 last year to eliminate the Georgia requirement for the "purge" of records of involuntary hospitalizations after five years. The Senate passed the bill, but it was never passed by the House. The bill remains in a House committee.
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While the proposal may not have a far-reaching impact on gun sales, it comes as public pressure for tighter controls is reaching a peak. Protests this week before state legislatures and Congress are calling for lawmakers to make changes after 17 students and teachers were shot and killed at a south Florida high school.
That has helped improve the chances of a change in Georgia law.
“I think they’re good,” Parent said of the chances her bill, or one like it, will get final passage this legislative session. “This is not a policy that anyone is opposed to. It really is just one of those vagaries of the system where there is a huge loophole.”
Much of the gun debate has focused on how people with mental illnesses get access to firearms.
“We’re OK with (Parent’s) bill,” said John Monroe, the attorney for GeorgiaCarry.org, which has been a lobbying force at the state Capitol for legislation about gun rights. “There’s no justification for the deletion (of names) after five years. It causes confusion because people think they can go buy a gun but they are still prohibited (from possessing a firearm) under federal law. Deleting (the names) makes it harder to discover it. But it is still a crime.”
Parent’s bill would allow those records to remain forever on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS.
The new legislation would bring Georgia law more in line with federal law,” said Athens-Clarke County Probate Court Judge Susan Tate, chair of the Weapons Carry License Committee for the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia.
Former student Nikolas Cruz, 19, who is charged with 17 counts of murder in the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., reportedly suffered from depression. However, he was never ordered to undergo in-patient treatment — that step would have placed his name on the FBI database and blocked him from buying the AR-15 he allegedly used in the shooting.
On Wednesday, high school students swarmed the Florida's Capitol, often running into roadblocks with legislators unwilling to tighten the law in that state. Also on Wednesday in Atlanta, across the street from the Georgia Capitol, about 1,000 rallied for stricter state gun laws.
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“The tragic events in Parkland are the tipping point for my generation, said Jacob Busch, senior at Chamblee Charter High School said. “The time for sending thoughts and prayers without actually making change has run its course.”
House Democratic Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville, urged the demonstrators, most of them dressed in red, to continue the group effort to change gun laws.
“Do you want to know how common sense gun laws are made? Look to your right. Look to your left. That’s how common sense gun laws are made,” Trammell said.
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Georgia is considered one of the nation's most gun-friendly states. State law mirrors the minimum standards laid out in federal law. In addition to people who have been involuntarily hospitalized for treatment for mental illness or drug or alcohol addictions, those who cannot buy or possess a firearm also include felons, anyone convicted of domestic abuse, and anyone with a pending protective order because of stalking or harassment.
In January alone, there were 45,591 queries to NICS regarding Georgians applying permits to carry a handgun or to buy a so-called long gun. Nationwide in January, there were just over 2 million NICS checks.
In 2017, there were 541,655 background checks made from Georgia; 25.2 million nationwide. According to the FBI, Georgia was responsible for 612,985 of more than 27.5 million NICS background checks from all the states for gun purchase or carry permits.
While Probate Judge Tate welcomed the proposed change to stop Georgia from purging the database entries, she said other loopholes in the state law will not remedied by the proposed legislation.
Many times a person who is ordered to involuntarily submit to a mental health evaluation will decide to willingly got into treatment, which means their names will not appear in the FBI’s database of those prohibited from buying or possession of a firearm.
“A lot of people who are in our mental hospitals are considered voluntary patients but they went there (for evaluation) involuntarily,” Tate said. “We never know about it and those people never get reported.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency feeds data into NICS, said Georgia had purged 13 names already this year. In 2017, the GBI added 2,863 records of involuntary treatment records to NICS but pulled out 212. Since 2013, Georgia has sent almost 9,800 records but purged 2,014 from NICS, even though federal law says anyone ever involuntarily hospitalized can never possess or buy a gun.
Once those records are purged, gun sellers have no way of knowing they shouldn’t sell to those Georgia residents.
“Those 2,000 persons are still prohibited from purchasing a firearm but they can go in and purchase a firearm because there’s nothing in the national database,” Keenan aid. “I think there’s a lot of concern that this is a gap in public safety.”
Keenan continued, “I’m not aware of anyone that supports a person who’s been involuntarily” hospitalized having a gun.
FBI database of those who can’t buy or carry a gun
Each year, Georgia sends to an FBI database between 1,000 and 3,000 names of people who cannot buy or carry a gun because of mental health issues.
Some make the list because a criminal court found them incompetent to stand trial or guilty but mentally ill. Others are placed in the database because a guardian was appointed to handle their personal affairs because they are not competent to do it themselves.
A third group is people involuntarily committed to either a public or private hospital for mental health treatment; it is only the people in this group whose names are purged from the national data base after five years.
Georgia records sent in to FBI database:
2016 — 1,803
2015 — 2,104
2014 — 1,429
2013 — 1,542
Georgia records purged from FBI database:
2017 — 212
2016 — 260
2015 — 463
2014 — 438
2013 — 641
By the numbers
2.1 million records of involuntary commitments to mental health hospitals nationwide.
484,580 background checks were made in Georgia in 2014.
10,932 guns sales were blocked nationwide 2013-14 because of involuntary commitments.
9,000 records in national database of people who had been involuntarily committed to mental health hospitals.
Source: Everytown for Gun Safety, FBI
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution