- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A new law meant to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill has so far stopped 55 attempted handgun sales and caused 65 concealed weapon permits to be revoked, the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division said Friday.

The law approved last year ordered courts across South Carolina to send SLED their records on residents who have been declared mentally ill or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Courts have until May to send in data over the last 10 years. Any new orders must be sent in within five days.

As of last week, SLED’s new mental health reporting unit had entered more than 22,300 names in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Keel said.

The entries into the federal database, which began in October, mean their names now show up when gun stores conduct background checks. The law, advocated by law enforcement and legislators in both parties, was designed to close a loophole. Though it was previously illegal to sell guns to someone who is mentally ill, the lack of reporting meant gun shops didn’t get that information.

A botched shooting at a girls’ school in Charleston last February drew attention to the loophole, leading to the measure’s quick passage. A tragedy was averted because the woman had loaded the gun incorrectly. Court papers showed she had schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome and had been ordered to get mental health treatment and evaluations.

“I think it is a huge success,” Keel said of the law. “It’s doing exactly what the Legislature intended it to do.”

Of the 55 attempted purchases it has stopped so far, six occurred at stores outside South Carolina. The law accounted for more than 80 percent of handgun purchases prevented by a background check over the last five months. It has also caused SLED to deny 12 applications for concealed weapon permits, he said.

A $900,000 grant from the federal government, announced last September, is paying for the new unit’s computers and a staff of seven - six for data entry and one for computer technology.

They have caught up on the backlog that amassed between the law’s passage last May, when probate courts began sending in the records, and the unit being in place. Counties are still working to pull files from previous years. In rural counties especially, those records were not computerized 10 years ago, Keel said.

Last week alone, 439 names were added to the database.

“They’re sending them in as they can get to them,” Keel said. “It’s not something that will get done overnight.”

The law was touted as a way to keep the mentally ill from buying handguns. However, people with a concealed weapon permit already have a gun. Keel said he anticipated that residents who had no criminal record but had been involuntarily committed would be among the state’s nearly 230,000 permit-holders.

“It causes concern, but the bottom line is, that was the whole reason for the program,” he said.

Permit holders are notified of the revocation by letter. They must either return their permit to SLED or their local sheriff’s office. If needed, SLED will send someone out to get a revoked permit, but so far that has not been needed, Keel said.

Keel said he also informs local law enforcement to give them a heads up that someone who’s been declared mentally ill possesses firearms.

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