On October 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote legislation authorizing funding to ensure that states and localities report the names of individuals "adjudicated as mentally defective" with the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIC). Sponsors of the legislation, known as "Our Lady of Peace Act" (HR 4757/S 2826), attempted to expedite Senate passage late last week but were blocked in their effort to achieve unanimous consent. Since then, both the House and Senate have recessed until at least the week of November 18 when members of Congress will return for a post-election "lame duck" session. It is expected that sponsors of HR 4757/HR 2826 will again attempt to push the bill through the Senate and on to President Bush's desk where it likely would be signed into law.
During the current congressional recess, NAMI will be attempting to force changes in the current version of the "Our Lady of Peace Act" to address concerns raised about provisions in the bill that would erode the privacy of individual's mental illness treatment status and reinforce existingstigma regarding people with mental illness. NAMI will also be urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to convene hearings on the bill to examine the potential impact on privacy rights of individuals with mental illness and likelihood that potential disclosure to the federal NCIC database might deter individuals from seeking treatment. To date, neither the House nor the Senate have held hearings on HR 4757/S 2826.
In an E-News message circulated on October 2, NAMI outlined a range of concerns about HR 4757/S 2826. Included below is additional background material and a restatement of the impact this legislation could have on individuals with mental illness. During the current recess, NAMI advocates are encouraged to share these concerns with their U.S. senators and urge them to amend the current version of this legislation to ensure that the privacy rights of consumers are not unfairly compromised as part of the effort to ensure appropriate screening of individuals seeking to purchase firearms. All members of Congress can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard toll free at 1-800-839-5276 or at 202-224-3121 or online.
Since 1968, federal law has required state and local government agencies to report the names of persons "adjudicated as mentally defective" to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is responsible for conducting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIC) for people seeking to purchase firearms. However, most states and localities have never complied with this law. HR 4757/S 2826 authorize a set of incentive grants to state and local agencies to report these names. Although NAMI recognizes the importance of screening individuals who wish to purchase guns, there is mounting concern that this legislation contains overly broad language and has potential to reinforce stigma and compromise the privacy of individuals with mental illnesses.
The term "adjudication as a mentally defective," as defined in HR 4757/S 2826, encompasses a variety of categories. While it is much narrower than all individuals diagnosed with a mental illness, it does include all individuals that have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, without regard to functional impairment, when the commitment occurred or the reason for the commitment. Additionally, any determination (formal or otherwise) by a governmental agency that a person is a danger to themselves as a result of a mental disorder or illness would serve as a basis for reporting their name to the FBI's NCIC. Likewise, a determination that a person lacks capacity to contract or manage their own affairs would also trigger a disclosure to the NCIC.
Second, as currently drafted HR 4757/S 2868 is lacking adequate protections to safeguard the privacy of individuals whose names are reported to the FBI for maintenance in the NCIC system. Specifically, the bill directs the Attorney General to work with states, local law enforcement and the mental health system to establish regulations and protocols for protecting privacy. However, the bill contains no specific parameters or guidelines for doing so.
Finally, in NAMI's view the very use of the language "adjudicated as a mentally defective" in S 2826 is outdated and highly stigmatizing of people with mental illness and would possibly deter some people from seeking necessary treatment.
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