The White House announced two new executive actions Friday that would expand the government’s access to mental health information during background checks on gun buyers.
The two new actions clarify what constitutes a mental health problem that might prohibit gun ownership and allow states more wiggle room in disclosing such personal medical information.
One executive action frees states from some of the privacy laws that prohibit the disclosure of patients’ medical information, allowing institutions to input mental health information relevant to gun ownership into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, otherwise known as NICS.
It modifies the HIPAA Privacy Rule to allow institutions “to disclose to the NICS the identities of persons prohibited by federal law from possessing or receiving a firearm for reasons related to mental health.”
Not everyone who has struggled with mental health issues is prohibited from owning a gun, but people who have been “involuntarily committed to a mental institution or otherwise have been determined by a lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others or to lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs” will be noted as such in the NICS.
“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,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “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 other executive action, issued by the Department of Justice, clarifies what exactly in someone’s mental health history would prohibit them from owning or purchasing a gun. Persons who fall under the category of “adjudicated as a mental defective” and “committed to a mental institution” include those who are “incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect; persons lacking mental responsibility or deemed insane; and persons found guilty but mentally ill, regardless of whether these determinations are made by a state, local, federal or military court,” as well as “a person committed to involuntary inpatient or outpatient treatment.”
“We are taking an important, commonsense step to clarify the federal firearms regulations, which will strengthen our ability to keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “This step will provide clear guidance on who is prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law for reasons related to mental health.
The executive actions come less than a month after the one year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 elementary school children and six adults dead. The shooting rampage sparked off a movement in Congress to pass background checks for gun owners, but ultimately congress could not agree to any such legislation.
The National Rifle Association declined to comment immediately on the executive actions.
“Nothing to say until we have a chance to review the actual language of these proposals,” emailed NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.