DSHS, cops take guns from mentally ill

The effectiveness of a new way of screening potential handgun owners might never be known by Whidbey Islanders, Washington residents, or even law enforcement.

On July 28, the Department of Social and Health Services announced they will take further steps in ensuring people found by the courts to be seriously mentally ill cannot obtain handguns. With the help of the Washington State Patrol, the DSHS will provide the FBI with the names of people disqualified by the courts from having handguns. The FBI will incorporate the information in its National Instant Criminal Background Check System — which gun shop owners and local law enforcement agencies use to screen people who wish to purchase a firearm.

“It makes it easier on law enforcement to check someone’s record,” said Sean Hartsock, a lieutenant with the Washington State Patrol.

He said a person who has been involuntarily committed for two weeks or more will loose his or her right to bear arms. The check against federal records will ensure an application to obtain a handgun will be returned with a faster reply.

“All we did was streamline and solidify the process,” Hartsock said. “We didn’t change anyone’s right whatsoever.”

Created in 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act created the NICS index to identify people whose possession of a firearm would violate federal law, Hartsock said. It provides a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun to allow NICS to be contacted by firearms dealers before the transfer of any firearm — and lists involuntary commitment and incompetence as one of several disqualifying categories.

Hartsock said people found to be mentally ill whose rights to firearms have been revoked will not be identified, which could allow law enforcement personnel access to confidential and private medical records. Instead the NICS computer response will simply state “state disqualified” when a question is made about a particular person.

“I don’t even know who’s in there,” Harstock said about people found to be seriously mentally ill.

If someone who has been involuntarily committed challenges such ruling against him or her, arms bearing rights can be rewstored — although Hartsock was not aware of that ever happening in Washington. He said federal law would forever prevent the person from carrying a handgun while on federal property, like in a national park, federal buildings or military installations.

Hartsock said law enforcement officers across the country will have the most accurate information accessible when reviewing a firearm ownership application, and would find out if they had been denied in the state of Washington. Washington, he said, is the only state who has given disqualifying mental health information in a joint agreement by mental health and law enforcement officials.

Jan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Island County Sheriff’s Office, said she does not know how many people are denied permission to own a handgun in Island County based on the mental illness disqualification, because private health records are rigorously protected.

“We have no idea how many people have been turned down for mental illness,” she said. “It doesn’t really affect local law enforcement.”

She said the new process announced last week will reduce the number of loopholes in the Brady law, which will keep mentally ill, potential handgun owners safe, as well as the people around them.

“Some of the gaps in the system are being closed,” she said.

Mike McInerney, a federal firearms licensee who does business in Langley, said there should be a provision to consider a person’s mental health condition might not be permanent. Just as a physical illness could be temporary or life-long, mental illness can be similar, he said.

“I think it’s a real mistake to label someone permanently,” he said.

Also a competitive shooter and a former psychology teacher at South Whidbey High School, McInerney said mental illness can sometimes be healed, so a person should not be labeled as a predictable threat in the future.

“Shouldn’t they have all the rights that everyone else has?” he asked. “We have to be able to differentiate those.”

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