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N.D. to report mental health records for gun sales checks

FARGO — North Dakota has been shooting blanks when it comes to submitting mental health records to the background check system used to screen gun permit applications.

North Dakota was one of a dozen states singled out in a new report as having reported fewer than 100 mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

State officials said North Dakota is just “days away” from linking mental health records to the background check system.

So far, just one mental health record in North Dakota has been submitted to the background check database, according to figures compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group.

North Dakota was ranked 46th in the group’s report, which highlights states that are lagging in reporting of mental health records, a system aimed at helping to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. Minnesota ranked 25th.

North Dakota’s ranking should soon improve. It has the capability of linking mental health records to the instant background check system and soon will put the system into operation, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an interview.

“We’re just not there yet,” said Stenehjem, whose office handles background checks for gun permit applications. “We’re within days of having this set up.”

All that remains is to sign an agreement between Stenehjem’s office and the office that administers the state court system, which compiles court orders involving serious mental illness.

The system will collect and report only cases in which a judge has ordered someone to be involuntarily committed to an institution for a mental illness, or if a judge has appointed a guardian ad litem or conservator for a mentally ill person, said Sandy Holewa, state court administrator.

Examples would include those with a traumatic brain injury, mental illness or cognitive impairment who were being sued, and a judge appointed a guardian ad litem to protect their interests.

Another example would be a case in which a judge found someone to be a “mentally deficient person,” as defined by state law.

Sexually dangerous offenders also will be submitted to the instant background check system.

In a test run of the system, compiling records from March 20 through Thursday, 123 mental health cases in North Dakota met the reporting criteria for submission to the background check system, Holewa said.

North Dakota will not go back into paper court records and collect past orders. That is not required by state law, Holewa said.

Mental health advocates, citing studies, have said only a small percentage of the mentally ill become violent, and even trained professionals have difficulty predicting those who will become violent.

Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, acknowledged that there is only a small correlation between mental illness and gun violence. But she said it is important to enable the background check system to identify those people so they cannot obtain firearms.

“The actual background check at the point of sale is only as good as the records contained in the system,” she said.

The advocacy group’s report, “Closing the Gap,” applied a per-capita rate of mental health records in the background system as a benchmark for states.

With just one record reported, North Dakota’s per capita rate ranked behind only Alaska, Louisiana, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There were 85,812 background checks for gun sales in North Dakota in 2012, according to the report.

In Minnesota, where 525,774 gun background checks were run in 2012, 12,129 such records had been submitted by the end of November last year — a rate of 225.5 records per 100,000 residents.

“It’s impossible to know how many records the state should submit, but the top 20 percent of states have all submitted more than 808 records per 100,000 residents,” Soto Lamb said.

When told North Dakota officials say the system for linking mental health records to the background check system is functional and “days away” from going into operation, Soto Lamb said that is encouraging.

The report credited North Dakota for passing a law establishing the mental health reporting system in 2011.

“That is very good news, and it makes sense given the direct connection between passing a record submission law and actually getting records into the system,” she said, though she added that Everytown for Gun Safety will be closely monitoring state progress.

The point of scrutiny from the report, she said, is to draw attention to the gaps in the system and to encourage states to improve their reporting systems to keep guns out of dangerous hands.

Stenehjem and Holewa said making mental health records available to the background check system provides another tool for law enforcement, but will not be a “silver bullet” in curbing gun violence.

“The thing is, it’s hard to predict who might have an issue,” Stenehjem said.

“We’re dealing with human nature,” Holewa said, adding that she was giving her personal opinion. “We’re not going to know that there’s a problem until an incident happens.”

Still, she added, “It’s better than nothing.”

In Minnesota, county sheriffs screen gun permit applications.

Bill Bergquist, Clay County sheriff, said making mental health records part of the background check system is valuable to law enforcement.

“It has been very helpful,” he said. “It works well.”

So far in Clay County, mental health records have not resulted in the denial of any gun permit applications in the almost 12 years Bergquist has been sheriff, he said.

“I’ve denied only one permit since I’ve been sheriff,” Bergquist said, “and that’s somebody who was blind.”

Nationwide, the number of guns sales denied due to mental health adjudications flagged in a background check increased by 65 percent from 2011 to 2013 — when 2,932 sales were prevented.

The federal system, launched in 1998, also conducts a criminal background check of potential gun buyers and prohibits purchases by those who are disqualified.

In part through grants to help pay for reporting systems, the federal government has in recent years been pushing states to submit more mental health records to the background check database.

The number of records reported by states increased from about 1.2 million in October 2011 to nearly 3.4 million by the end of March 2014, according to the report by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to