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Mental Health and Firearms

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Since 1966, the National Rifle Association has urged the federal government to address the problem of mental illness and violence. As we noted then, “the time is at hand to seek means by which society can identify, treat and temporarily isolate such individuals,” because “elimination of the instrument by which these crimes are committed cannot arrest the ravages of a psychotic murderer.”[1]

More recently, the NRA has supported legislation to ensure that appropriate records of those who have been judged mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to mental institutions be made available for use in firearms transfer background checks. The NRA will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans.

Federal Law

Since 1968, federal law has barred the possession or acquisition of firearms by anyone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.”[2]

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has issued regulations that define an “adjudication” as a “determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person is, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease: (1) Is a danger to himself or to others; or (2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs.” This includes a finding of insanity or incompetency in a criminal case.[3]

“Committed to a mental institution” is defined as a “formal commitment of a person to a mental institution by a court, board, or other lawful authority.” The definition makes clear that “[t]he term does not include a person in a mental institution for observation or a voluntary admission.”  The Supreme Court has held that an involuntary commitment is a serious deprivation of liberty that requires due process of law under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[4]

A person cannot be federally disqualified from owning a gun based simply on a psychiatrist’s diagnosis, a doctor’s referral, or the opinion of a law enforcement officer, let alone based on getting a drug prescription or seeking mental health treatment. Doing so would actually discourage troubled people from getting the help they need.

Instant Check Improvements

In January 2008, President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan “NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.”[5] The NRA-supported legislation created incentives for states to upgrade their procedures for timely and accurate reporting of records—including mental health records—to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. All federal firearm licensees are required to check the system (either directly or through a state point of contact) before proceeding with a sale.[6] To accomplish this task, the legislation authorized federal grants to states that improve their record keeping and supply those records to NICS, while also developing procedures under which people who have recovered from mental illness can get their firearms rights restored.

To support state cooperation in providing records, the NRA has worked with lawmakers in many states to pass legislation to implement the federal law. Passage of such legislation, along with other administrative and policy changes at the state level, has allowed states to provide hundreds of thousands of mental health records to NICS since 2008.

In recent years, anti-gun lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand the definition of people barred from possessing firearms to include persons who have simply been ordered to receive counseling. This could include a person whose employer or school administrator orders him to receive counseling as a condition of employment or enrollment, regardless of the outcome of such counseling. Similarly onerous legislation has been introduced in some states. At least one attempt has been made to ban gun ownership by anyone with any recognized diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—an outrageously broad standard that would affect the rights of countless Americans.

Veterans and Mental Health

The danger of overbroad mental health disqualifiers is already clear to tens of thousands of veterans. Veterans and family members who receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and have simply had personal representatives appointed to manage those benefits are currently labeled as “mentally defective,” reported to NICS and barred from gun possession. Fortunately, the NICS Improvement Amendments Act required federal agencies that make such decisions to provide avenues for legal relief as well.



[1] “The Mentally Ill,” The American Rifleman (Sept. 1966).

[2] 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(d)(4), (g)(4).

[3] 27 CFR § 478.11.

[4] Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979).

[5] Pub. L. 110-180.

[6] Many state firearm licenses serve as an alternative to NICS. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(t).

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