- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2014

The White House on Friday announced two new gun-related executive actions intended to keep people who cannot legally obtain a gun due to mental health issues from getting one.

Though the administration once again called on Congress to expand gun-purchase background checks and make gun trafficking a federal crime, the move signifies another step toward the issue of mental health in the gun debate.

The Department of Justice is moving to clarify who is prohibited from having a gun because of mental health issues, and the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to help states submit more information on such people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

“While the vast majority of Americans who experience a mental illness are not violent, in some cases when persons with a mental illness do not receive the treatment they need, the result can be tragedies such as homicide or suicide,” the White House said in a memo outlining the actions.

DOJ is issuing a proposed rule to clarify several terms as they relate to mental health issues and guns; for example, “committed to a mental institution” would include both involuntary inpatient as well as outpatient commitments.

The administration also says some states have indicated federal privacy provisions might be preventing them from submitting information to the NICS system about people who cannot legally buy guns because of mental health issues. HHS is now issuing a proposed rule to give certain entities express permission to disclose peoples’ identities to the NICS in order to keep such people from getting guns.

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.

“There is a strong public safety need for this information to be accessible to the NICS, and some states are currently under-reporting or not reporting certain information to the NICS at all,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “This proposed rulemaking is carefully balanced to protect and preserve individuals’ privacy interests, the patient-provider relationship, and the public’s health and safety.”

The president has also included $130 million in his fiscal 2014 budget intended to make it easier for people, particularly youth and young adults, to get help for mental health problems.

The White House also pushed once again for Congress to take legislative action to expand gun-purchase background checks and make gun trafficking a federal crime — two proposals that failed to pass last year.

Despite the exhortation on measures specifically related to guns, many lawmakers, such as Sens. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, and Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, as well as Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, have recently rolled out legislation recently focused on boosting services and access to mental health programs.

In addition to expanding gun-purchase background checks, President Obama and congressional Democrats made an aggressive push last year to ban military-style, semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines in the wake of the Dec. 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

But the proposals on the military-style rifles and magazines were quickly killed, and a compromise measure to expand the background checks to gun sales online and at gun shows failed to pass the Senate in April. Currently, only federally licensed dealers are required to perform the checks.

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