Gunsmith, Frank Cobet, of the Get Loaded gun store in Chino, Calif., shows a customer an AR-15 rifle on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Credit: Barbara Davidson | TNS
This graphic, created by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, illustrates what the group calls shortfalls in state submissions of mental illness records to a federal system used in gun sales background checks.
This graphic, created by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, illustrates what the group calls shortfalls in state submissions of mental illness records to a federal system used in gun sales background checks. Credit:

The gun control activist group Everytown for Gun Safety has released its latest batch of FBI data on mental health records, and is arguing that many states are coming up dangerously short in their efforts to keep federal files updated.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, more commonly known by the abbreviated acronym NICS, is used in background checks in firearms sales. While debate still swirls about suggested assault rifle bans and firearm databases, which are firmly opposed on constitutional grounds by groups like the National Rifle Association, NICS has been used for nearly 18 years by licensed gun sellers with little controversy.

And while the NRA and gun control activists don’t agree on much, one place of common ground has — nominally, anyway — been addressing mental illness and access to firearms by those dealing with certain mental health problems.

According to Everytown, the lag in submissions of mental health records to NICS by states undermines its effectiveness.

The group argued that, in the case of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, gunman Seung-Hui Cho was able to purchase firearms in part because his history of mental illness had yet to be recorded in the federal background check system.

Cho had been admitted to the psychiatric ward of a Virginia hospital two years earlier, and had continued to receive consultations with mental health professionals in the time after his release. But because that information wasn’t submitted to NICS, Everytown argued, he was able to pass a background check and buy the guns necessary to ultimately kill 32 people and himself in a subsequent rampage at the university.

According to Everytown, the latest FBI data shows that 83,085 gun purchase background checks were conducted in Maine in 2014. The group noted that the state has submitted 2,932 mental health records to NICS, but based on its population rate and other factors, is likely about 7,823 record submissions short of keeping the system truly updated.

Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the State of Maine Judicial Branch, questioned Everytown’s estimates for how many records each state is supposed to have submitted.

“The Maine Judicial Branch has submitted every relevant mental health record from the date Maine law allowed submission,” Lynch said, adding, “I cannot begin to express my disappointment in the repetition of such a damaging inaccuracy, obviously put out by a special interest group for political purposes. It is discouraging to court employees, who have worked so hard within an antiquated paper-based system to fulfill every aspect of the NICS reporting requirements and Maine law.”

Even factoring in the shortfall Everytown alleged, Maine was in the middle of the pack nationwide in terms of keeping NICS up-to-date. Everytown decried six other states in particular — Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming — as being most delinquent in record submissions.

“The evidence is clear that as states submit their mental health records, background checks become more effective at keeping guns out of dangerous hands,” said Ted Alcorn, Everytown research director, in a statement. “Sadly, a half-dozen states are still failing to uphold their obligations to public safety, leaving fatal gaps in the background check system. It only takes one gun in the wrong hands to result in tragedy.”

It’s worth noting that Maine consistently has one of the lowest rates of gun violence and crime in the country. And that while having updated NICS records seems like a worthy goal regardless, there’s no correlation between low submission numbers and gun violence — three of the six states highlighted by Everytown for delinquency in record submissions are also among the 10 states with the lowest firearm murders per 100,000 residents.

Additionally, there are limits to the effectiveness of NICS, because many states — Maine included — allow private gun sales that don’t include background checks.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.