Potential Gun Reforms: Stricter Background Checks and Greater Access to Mental Health Records

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek: “The severely mentally ill should never have access to guns. We have an epidemic of untreated mental illness in the U.S. and right here in Minnesota.”

The following was released by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office:

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam and a coalition of community partners that included advocates for the mentally ill and state lawmakers gathered in St. Paul Wednesday to discuss potential reforms to address concerns about the role of mental illness and extreme gun violence. 

Among the proposed reforms: strengthen existing gun background check laws, provide greater access to mental health records for law enforcement and address gaps in providing services and resources to Minnesotans who live with untreated mental illness. 

“We have an access problem,” said Sheriff Stanek, “The severely mentally ill should never have access to guns. We have an epidemic of untreated mental illness in the U.S. and right here in Minnesota.” 

Following the events of Newtown, Connecticut, the nation has been engaged in an important conversation about extreme gun violence and the role of mental illness. The discussion has focused on federal laws and policies.

Today, a broad coalition of community leaders in Minnesota announced that they have identified actions that can be done now in Minnesota to improve public safety and public health.

“Our criminal justice system is failing the interests of the people living with mental illness and we need to improve the system so this population is not languishing in jail,” said Judge Jay Quam, Hennepin County Mental Health Court. 

Judge Quam considers petitions for mental health commitments following the determination that someone is incompetent to proceed in a criminal case.  He also made recommendations to improve how the courts deal with mentally ill people such as streamlining the process for people with the most acute symptoms. 

These potential reforms were discussed Wednesday: 
1.        Improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”).  NICS is a national database of records on persons who may be disqualified from owning or purchasing  firearms; the system is only as complete and timely as the information provided by each of the respective 50 states (participation is voluntary).  Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension manages and maintains Minnesota’s NICS system information; Minnesota should ensure that all felony and drug convictions and mental health court orders and other disqualifying gun ownership records are sent to the BCA in an electronic format within 24 hours, and entered immediately into NICS. 

2.        Law Enforcement Access to Mental Health Records.  Law enforcement officers and correctional and detention professionals should have ready access to critical (and already public) mental health court records --in responding to 911 calls, in performing background checks, and for booking and housing arrestees -- but we do not have the information-sharing systems we need.

3.        Improve the procedures for inmate competency (Rule 20.01) and civil commitment (MN Stat. 253B) evaluations and treatment.  Inmates who have been referred for a Rule 20 hearing are evaluated for their mental competency to stand trial; if there is a commitment hearing, there must be a separate evaluation, and the intervening period can take weeks or months.  These evaluations could be combined in appropriate cases, and additional treatment options could be made available for restoring competency, which would return defendants back to criminal court more quickly.   Improving the procedures will reduce the time a defendant with mental illness spends in jail without adequate mental health treatment.  

4.        Review Minnesota’s Civil Commitment Law.    Under current Minnesota law, Courts may only order mental health treatment when an individual has been determined by law to be a danger to themselves or others, which is a very high threshold.  Minnesota should review and consider this legal standard and compare to the “need-for-treatment” standards adopted in 27 other states.  A thorough review would include consideration and protection of the subject’s constitutional and privacy rights, as well as access to services for family members of the mentally ill who seek care for their loved ones before they may become a danger to themselves or others.  

5.        Assess the in-patient and out-patient psychiatric resources available to serve the mentally ill in Minnesota, including those in the criminal justice system. Consider the settings and programs in between the hospital and a person's own home, as well as services such as Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) that help people with serious mental illnesses remain healthy and independent in their own homes. Ensuring adequate community-based resources will help solve other related problems.  In particular, once a court of law has determined that an individual is incompetent to stand trial, he/she should be moved out of the Jail setting immediately, and into an adequate care and treatment environment; we do not want to criminalize mental illness.  Once a court has stayed or dismissed criminal charges due to mental illness, there is questionable legal authority or justification for any individual to be held in pre-adjudication detention.

A coalition community partners attended the meeting to demonstrate their support for a discussion on these issues. Among those who attended: 

·        Sheriff Jim Olson, Carver County 
·        Rep. Dan Schoen 
·        Judge Jay Quam, Hennepin County (Mental Health Court) 
·        Rep. John Lesch 
·        Sen. Ron Latz 
·        Sue Aberdholden, NAMI-MN (National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota) 
·        Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney 
·        Sen. Julianne Ortman 
·        Jim Franklin, Executive Director, Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association 
·        Dave Pecchia, Executive Director, MN Chiefs of Police 
·        Sheriff Matt Bostrom, Ramsey County 
·        Sheriff Bill Hutton, Washington County 
·        Sheriff Dave Bellows, Dakota County 

How do you feel about these potential reforms? 

Michelle January 24, 2013 at 05:47 PM
As a mental health professional I think the problem lies in untreated mental illness and the lack of access ability to service. However, a large part of accessibility is the insurance companies denying to offering contracts to mental health professionals. I am the only mental health professional in Albertville and several insurance companies have refused to offer a contract because they say our area is saturated. There is one clinic in St. Michael and the Dr office in St. Michael has one therapist. This is far from saturated. The insurance companies restricting this only adds to people not being able to access help. This must change. People need to have closer access and more choices. Their ability to control this is unhealthy for the community. We need to be able to help others without these restraints.
Rick January 25, 2013 at 02:10 PM
Here's the issue. Liberals for years upon years, have blocked the reforms necessary when purchasing a firearm, citing confidentiality of the mentally handicapped. This is the elephant in the room folks. It's not the forms, it's not "bad" background checks. Nearly every article I have read regarding these latest abhorrent tragedies, the writer is either flat out lying or misinformed. In Minnesota, a background check MUST be performed by local law enforcement of your jurisdiction prior to a purchase. Two ways to purchase guns are involved (we'll omit Federal Firearms Licences). Either a one year permit to purchase is authorized, or, in the case of conceal/carry permit holders, only after you have taken a state approved class, then submitted your paperwork and usually a $100 fee, you are granted a c/c license which allows gun purchases for five years. You go to buy a gun, the permit must be shown, paperwork filled out, (one of the questions asks have you ever been declared mentally incompetent) then a call to the FBI is made and either a yes or no answer is returned. There is no database to cross reference mentally ill people with the FBI's database. THAT'S the problem folks, not the guns. Many times legislation has been submitted only to be shot down (pardon the pun) by liberals citing a violation of that individuals privacy. Look at the last 3 mass shootings (Sandy Hook, Aurora Cinema, Tuscon). All the shooters have been mentally ill and declared as such.
JoJo January 27, 2013 at 09:38 PM
To dovetail on what Rick is saying... Not JUST that the shooters were mentally ill. The larger similarity of the shooters, the similarity that allows us to put the Columbine shooters and others in the same group as these obviously mentally ill men, is that they were all on multiple phychotropic drugs. Dr Karen Effrem, several years ago, collected and studied the evidence on violent crowd/school shootings and provided a compelling summary on what is going on. From my memory, there were several serious warnings on these drugs, and two things were happening to make people literally snap. One, they were suddenly stopping all medication for whatever reason. Two, they were taking them for so long, and so many, that seratonin (here's where I forget the detail) builds up to a toxic level and the person literally goes crazy over a period of time. THESE problems are why other countries don't allow these drugs to be used on children, and some even ban them on people under the age of 25. However, in the US, where drug companies lobby doctors, mental health professionals, and lawmakers alike, very few changes to protect children and young adults have occured. Add these problems to the fact that most if not all of these people who snap and become violent are completely obsessed with violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and much worse than that. Clearly, screaming "gun control!" is a distraction.


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