By Andrew Damstedt, Capital News Service
Maryland is one of 23 states that has been lax in reporting mental health and substance abuse records to a national database used to run background checks on gun purchasers, a coalition of mayors found in a report released this week.
The Mayors Against Illegal Guns report found through its analysis of FBI data of submissions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, that Maryland reported 58 mental health records and zero substance abuse records since 1999. Federal law prohibits mentally ill people and drug abusers from owning guns.
"What we're asking for here today is simple and it could save so many lives," coalition co-chairman and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a written statement. "Americans -- including most gun owners -- want every gun sale to undergo a background check, but we need a system that works."
Maryland law requires all institutions to notify the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of any individual admitted to a mental health treatment facility, but there is no state law requiring that information be transferred to the federal database.
Privacy issues, logistical problems, lack of funding and lack of leadership contributed to state's failure to report to the database, the report found.
Maryland has "many disparate mental health disability databases" and "much of the data is contained within diffuse court systems and much of it is paper-based," Dori Henry, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.
The state is working to ease transmission of information that is not legally confidential to the database but that requires significant coding and document review, Henry wrote.
There is a seven-day waiting period in Maryland to purchase handguns so the state can perform a background check, Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. There is no waiting period for long guns, so the immediate NICS background check is used, he said.
The state checks 16 databases when performing a background check, he said, including NICS, the national warrant database, and district court records, among others.
In 2007, the state started asking gun buyers to sign forms allowing the state to check with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene regarding their mental health history, Shipley said.
Shipley and Henry mentioned that the various state agencies, including the mental health department, Department of Public Safety and Correction Services, the governor's office and lawmakers have been meeting in a work group to see whether there are ways to improve reporting.
"Many records, such as mental health records, are still unavailable to the NICS," said David Cuthbertson, FBI assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services division, to Congress Tuesday. "Many states are challenged by existing privacy laws that bar the sharing of mental health information. The FBI in a consulting capacity assists states seeking to draft legislation permitting the sharing of mental health information with the NICS."
The background check requirement was mandated by Congress in 1993 when it established the database of those prohibited from purchasing a gun, which includes mentally ill people.
The FBI reports there have been 7,514 gun purchase denials, of 882,447 total denials, because of mental health reasons since the database's launch in 1999.
So far this year, the FBI reports that there have been 78,744 background checks performed in Maryland.
In 2007, in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech, Congress approved the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, which provided financial incentives for states to submit records to the database. However, Maryland has been ineligible for a grant because of the federal requirement to provide a reasonable estimate of records that need to be reported, according to the report.
Maryland mayors listed as members of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition are Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore; Andrew Fellows, College Park; Craig Moe, Laurel; Phyllis Marcuccio, Rockville; and James Ireton, Salisbury. Calls to each of the mayors went unreturned by deadline.