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Congress Passes Gun Reporting Law

Law Retains Vague, Stigmatizing Language, but Creates Means for Expunging Names

December 21, 2007

Just before adjourning for the holidays, the U.S. Senate passed a bill, the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (HR 2640), to provide incentives to states to report the names of certain people with mental illnesses who are prohibited from purchasing guns.  The House passed the bill several months ago and President Bush is expected to sign it into law. 

Background:

Since 1968, federal law has prohibited certain categories of people, including persons "adjudicated as mental defectives" from owning or purchasing guns.  In 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established as a way to instantly provide gun shop owners with the names of those prohibited from purchasing firearms.  The NICS system is maintained by the FBI.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings earlier this year, it was revealed that many states have not been reporting names to the NICS system and that some of these states do not have adequate systems in place to comply with reporting requirements. HR 2640 is intended to strengthen reporting by providing states with resources to develop reporting systems and by penalizing states that continue to fail to report names to the NICS system.

What does HR 2640 require?

The new law authorizes grants to states to create or improve systems for reporting the names of individuals who are prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms,  including people who are involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals, people found by a court of law to lack capacity to contract or manage their own affairs, and people who are found not competent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The bill provides financial incentives to states to create reporting systems, and penalizes them (by withholding federal money) if they fail to comply.

HR 2640 addresses some but not all of NAMI’s concerns.

The version of HR 2640 passed this week by the Senate contains some compromises and  modifications to the original bill.  In testimony provided last summer at a hearing on federal gun reporting laws, NAMI expressed a number of concerns about HR 2640 including:

  • Concerns that the definition in existing law of those who should be included on the NICS list is vague and overly broad, using terminology that is outdated and stigmatizing ("people adjudicated as mental defectives"). HR 2640 does nothing to change this stigmatizing and vague language.
  • Concerns that there are inadequate protections in current law against breaches of privacy or sharing of information with other agencies. HR 2640 attempts to address this concern by directing the U.S. Department of Justice to draft regulations addressing privacy protections.
  • Concerns that people had no way of knowing whether their names were on the list and that once on the list, there were no mechanisms to have one’s name removed from the list. HR 2640 partially addresses this concern by requiring that states create mechanisms to allow individuals who are no longer dangerous to have their names expunged from the list
  • Concerns that Congress, by focusing on guns, was failing to address the real problem implicated in the Virginia Tech tragedy, the lack of a mental health system to respond to people like Cho who are in crisis and in need of treatment. 

NAMI is pleased that some progress has made on HR 2640, but we remain concerned with certain aspects of the bill, particularly that the criteria for inclusion on the list and for removal from the list is vague and confusing, and therefore creates potential for misinterpretation and misapplication of the law.

Read NAMI’s testimony on HR 2640 and the accompanying E-News.

Next Steps

In the coming weeks and months, NAMI will be working to clarify how the law is to be implemented and to ensure that the perspectives and concerns of consumer and family advocates are considered as federal regulations are developed.  We will further inform you about key provisions in the bill and how grassroots advocates can impact on  implementation at state levels of this new law. 

Click here for a copy of HR 2640.                       


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