Georgia clears way for mentally ill to buy guns

The records of thousands of people who were involuntarily committed for mental health treatment in Georgia have been removed from a national database that gun dealers use to run background checks of buyers.

It’s a law in Georgia that after five years, with no doctor’s examination or any other reassessment of their mental fitness, anyone listed on that database is again eligible to buy and carry guns.

There are currently more than 9,700 people listed on the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System who are not permitted under federal and state law to buy firearms. When someone applies to buy a gun, the seller consults the FBI’s list to be sure the buyer’s name is not on it.

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In 2017, the state uploaded almost 2,900 new records of mentally ill Georgians to the database —people who were committed for inpatient treatment, found incompetent to handle their own affairs, or found guilty of a crime but mentally ill.

But the state also removed from the same database 212 other records of the mentally ill in last year, making it possible for them to acquire guns legally anywhere in the country.

Once a record of a commitment in Georgia has been on the National Instant Background Check System for five years, state law requires that it be removed. So even as the state is adding hundreds of new commitment records each year, it is also deleting hundreds more that have reached the five-year limit.

It is as if they were never prohibited from having guns.

“We’re pulling them back after five years,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency provides the commitment records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And while they are no longer on the FBI’s list, “That’s a legal dilemma (because) that person is still prohibited from possession or buying firearms.”

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The names come off the national list without any review by a doctor or a court. Although these are federal records, participation in the program by each state is voluntary and subject to conditions the state may impose.

More than a decade ago, the Legislature authorized the GBI to provide the FBI the names of mentally ill people involuntarily committed to a public or private hospital, but with the condition that records be removed after five years.

In light of recent mass shootings, the public has joined in the concern increasingly expressed by politicians, law enforcement and judges.

After the shooting deaths of 17 high school students in south Florida a week ago, the public's attention has once again shifted to the role mental illness plays.

President Donald Trump said after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that rather than focusing on tighter restrictions on gun laws, there should be more attention paid to mental health.

Nikolas Cruz legally bought the AR-15 used to shoot and kill 17 students and teachers. He was reported to be suffering from depression, but he was never involuntarily committed for in-patient mental health treatment. Only that step would have made him ineligible to buy a gun.

Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Cruz is charged with killing 17 people and wounding many others in Wednesday's attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School  in Parkland, which he once attended. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Credit: Mike Stocker

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Credit: Mike Stocker

Athens-Clarke County Probate Court Judge Susan Tate, who is chair of the Weapons Carry License Committee for the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia, has repeatedly said there are gaps in the law — deadly gaps.

Only mentally ill people who are involuntarily committed for inpatient treatment are reported to the FBI for the purpose of gun background checks. People who are ordered to have an evaluation but then agree to admit themselves for treatment are not reported. Neither are mentally ill people treated as outpatients, whether the treatment is voluntary or involuntary.

"I'm always scared when I've ordered somebody to be evaluated," Tate, the Georgia contact for the National Criminal Background Check System, said after writing a column for the local newspaper in October 2015 in response to Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, fatally shooting eight students and an assistant professor at Umpqua Community College before killing himself.

“Even if they haven’t been hospitalized, I wouldn’t want any of those people to have a gun,” Tate said.

Stephen Paddock, who use legally-purchased guns to kill 58 concert-goers in Las Vegas last fall, was never diagnosed with mental illness. But his physician later told police he suspected Paddock had bipolar disorder.

John Houser killed himself after fatally shooting two people and wounding nine in a Louisiana movie theater in July 2015. He legally bought his gun even though in 2008 a Carroll County, Ga., probate judge ordered him to be evaluated.

LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 25: Mourners leave flowers at a makeshift memorial outside of a store owned by one of the two people John Russell Houser killed at a Louisiana movie theater before shooting himself.

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Judge Betty Cason told Channel 2 Action News she never received a petition to commit him from the doctors who evaluated him; consequently, his name never appeared on the FBI database. His mental illness was documented in other public records in Carroll County dating to the 1990s.

Georgia has about 9,800 records at this time on the national database, while many other states have tens of thousands.

Georgia is the only state that automatically removes records of involuntary commitments to inpatient treatment.

For most mental disorders and for most people, treatment is effective in a period of “weeks to months,” said Dr. Steven Hoge, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Psychiatry and the Law. Even so, some people are not completely responsive to treatment or relapse.

In his opinion, the 5-year waiting period is “reasonable.” But given the range of reasons for civil commitments, a case-by-case analysis would be a better way to determine if someone who has been committed should be allowed to buy a gun, Hoge said.

But, he added, limitations on gun purchases for people who have been involuntarily committed is unlikely to dramatically reduce gun violence.

“The public has massively overestimated the dangerousness of the mentally disordered,” Hoge said.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has said the provision to remove names after five years was put into Georgia law to spare those with mental illness the stigma after their illnesses are controlled.

“It’s a tenuous position for someone to have had a mental illness,” Unterman in a previous interview. “Your mental health when you’re 25 years old is different from when you’re 55 years old. Why should you carry the baggage and stigma of mental illness? … If you stigmatize people, it makes people afraid to come out.”

By the numbers

2.1 million records of involuntary commitments to mental health hospitals nationwide.

484,580 background checks in Georgia in 2014.

10,932 guns sales blocked 2013-2014 nationwide because of involuntary commitments.

9,000 records in national database of people who had been involuntarily committed to mental health hospitals.

6 states have reported fewer that 55 people involuntarily committed to mental health hospitals

*most recent data used

Source: Everytown for Gun Safety, FBI

Georgia and federal laws prohibit selling a gun or issuing a permit to carry a gun to anyone:

  • Convicted of a felony, who is a fugitive or is under indictment for a crime that carries a punishment of at least a year in prison.
  • Convicted of a drug offense in the previous year or multiple drug offense in the previous five years.
  • Involuntarily committed to inpatient treatment for mental health. It does not apply to anyone who voluntarily goes into treatment.
  • Found incompetent to stand trial, guilty but mentally ill.
  • For whom a guardian is appointed after they are found incompetent to handle their own affairs.
  • Illegally in this country.
  • Dishonorably discharged from the military.
  • Who has renounced their citizenship.
  • Convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
  • Who has a restraining order against them to prevent stalking, harassing or threatening an intimate partner and their children.

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.

The 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:

2017-- 2,863

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