Mental illness in youth could prevent gun purchases in adulthood

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The Obama administration is weighing whether people deemed mentally ill as minors should be barred from getting guns as adults, opening up a thorny debate that is unsettling gun-rights and mental health advocates alike.

In a new proposed rule published Tuesday, the Justice Department, which is trying to bolster the national background check system, asked the public to comment on whether information about mental illnesses of minors should be included in the databases.


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The mentally ill, along with convicted felons, illegal immigrants and some other categories, are prohibited from possessing weapons.

Mental health advocates and gun-rights supporters, though, both said they are worried about drawing lifelong conclusions about someone who got treatment as a youth.

“Circumstances change,” said Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Just because you were civilly committed five years ago or 10 years ago doesn’t mean your psychiatric condition is the same going down the road.”

Michael E. Hammond, a legislative consultant to Gun Owners of America, said the debate is “a little theoretical” at this point — but could become a problem.

“Lo and behold, a kid finds out [when] he’s 18 he’s on the FBI blacklist,” said Mr. Hammond.

He acknowledged there are ways to change the record, but said there are major hurdles.


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“In practice, you need to get an attorney, and attorneys ain’t cheap,” he said. “And you’ll probably need to get one or more psychiatrists to tell you you’re not mentally disabled in any way.”

Some states, but not all, make such records available to the federal database.

Congress amended the Gun Control Act of 1968 in 2008 to stipulate that people who end up adjudicated mentally ill or involuntarily committed can get guns if the ruling is set aside or expunged or if the person has completed all mandatory treatment, if they’re found by a court to no longer suffer from the condition or are rehabilitated, or if the designation was based solely on a medical finding and the person was not given a hearing.

The administration issued the proposed rule as part of a series of executive actions it’s taking on guns, following the December 2012 shooting rampage that killed 26 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Authorities have said the shooter, Adam Lanza, had mental health issues, though prosecutors said it was unclear how much they contributed to his shooting spree.

In addition to questions about minors’ history, the administration said states have indicated federal privacy provisions might prevent them from submitting information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) about people who cannot legally buy guns because of mental health issues.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) published a proposed rule Tuesday to try to make it easier to disclose peoples’ identities to the NICS.

HHS said nothing in the proposed rule would require reporting on general mental health visits or routine mental health care, and clarified that seeking help or getting treatment for mental health problems does not automatically bar someone from legally obtaining a gun.

“This proposed rulemaking is carefully balanced to protect and preserve individuals’ privacy interests, the patient-provider relationship, and the public’s health and safety,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

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