When it comes to sharing mental health records with safety officials for gun background checks, Maine is among the worst performing states, according to a national group promoting gun control.
In the wake of 26 murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 committed by a man believed to have mental health problems, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns on Wednesday urged President Barack Obama to do three things: Get high-capacity rifles off the streets, require every gun buyer to pass a criminal background check and make gun trafficking a federal crime.
Last year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns issued a report on how each state did providing mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
That November 2011 report said Maine had submitted 35 mental health records but should have submitted 11,078 records.
Maine member Bill Stokes questioned that 11,078 number, calling it too high. Stokes is the mayor of Augusta, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and has prosecuted murder trials as chief of the criminal division of the Maine attorney general’s office.
Stokes and Larry Gilbert, former mayor of Lewiston and a Mayors Against Illegal Guns member, said Wednesday that more needs to be done to prevent those who shouldn’t have guns from getting them.
Providing only 35 mental health records for background checks is a “lousy” performance, Gilbert said. It’s time, he said, to worry less about individual rights and focus on protecting society.
There are costs to freedom to ensure safety, such as when people fly on a commercial airplane.
“We had a shoe bomber, which means now everybody has to take off their shoes. We have people on a no-fly list, yet they can go out and buy a gun,” Gilbert said.
Protecting the public is the first responsibility of elected officials, he said.
“I’m all for people having guns to go hunting and target shooting, but to have these high-capacity clips on assault rifles, they’re not necessary. Government has a responsibility,” Gilbert said.
Under existing laws, the Maine court system is required to send mental health records to the Maine Department of Public Safety, then to the federal NICS, in three cases: When the court has involuntarily committed a mentally ill person, when a person has committed a crime and been found not responsible because of mental illness, and when the court finds a person not competent to stand trial.
“Those records are supposed to be sent to the Maine Department of [Public] Safety, who reports to the FBI,” Stokes said. “This information needs to be submitted.”
But the law wouldn’t cover others suffering with mental illness, even if they’ve been hospitalized, who haven’t dealt with Maine court system, Stokes said.
In addition, the state law says the courts are not required to transmit records without sufficient funding. Federal funding was anticipated, but “that has not materialized,” he said. “The dilemma in this law is that it creates an out.” The Maine Department of Public Safety “is working to try to comply,” he said.
Maine’s record-sharing law went into effect in 2009. According to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report, state lawmakers and the Department of Public Safety have disagreed about what other kind of mental health records should be submitted to NICS.
Also, Maine lacks an electronic reporting infrastructure for civil or criminal records, the report said, and the state is exploring applying for federal grants to improve the background check system.
The top advocate for the mentally ill in Maine said Wednesday that the state’s law leaves out many mentally ill, and the number who are violent is small.
“Most people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators,” Carol Carothers, executive director of the Maine Chapter of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said. That said, Carothers added, when active states of psychosis and substance abuse are combined, “those are predictors of rates of violence.”
In Maine, one in four people wrestle with mental health problems, which is more than 200,000.
“Three percent of those have serious mental health issues, and a small percentage of that 3 percent is in psychosis,” Carothers said.
For NAMI the debate is not about gun control.
“It’s about early access to preventative mental health services,” Carothers said. “That’s a complex discussion.”