Montana Studies Background Checks for Mentally Ill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Mass shootings such as the recent Washington Navy Yard killings have prompted Montana lawmakers to examine whether the state should turn over mental illness records to the federal government for background checks in gun purchases.

The Montana Department of Justice fielded calls from the public and lawmakers about how the state handles background checks for the mentally ill after the deaths of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion told a legislative panel Thursday.

Monday’s shootings that killed 12 people and the gunman at the Navy Yard only increased that scrutiny.

“All of these tragic situations make people ask these questions,” Bennion said.

People who have been committed to a mental institution or fit the federal definition of mental defectives are not allowed to own or possess firearms under federal law. The term “mental defective,” which mental-health advocates consider offensive, means a legal authority has determined the person is a danger to himself or others or lacks the mental capacity to manage his own affairs.

It also includes court rulings that a person is insane or incompetent to stand trial.

In 2007, the federal government began requiring states to provide records of mental illness for background checks and to establish a way for people to restore their status after they have been successfully treated for mental illness.

States that don’t comply aren’t eligible for certain federal grants and will begin to see a partial reduction in some federal funding starting next year.

Montana has confidentiality laws protecting the mentally ill that bar it from turning over their records for federal background checks. The only time the state does so is when the matter is public record, such as a court proceeding, Bennion said.

The state does not have an appeals process to restore the rights of somebody who has been prohibited from owning a gun because of mental illness.

The interim legislative committee agreed Thursday to hold hearings into the matter to see whether to propose a change in state law for the next legislative session in 2015. The committee will invite gun and mental health advocates, along with state, county and judicial officials to participate.

The issue is a sensitive one in Montana, where hunting and guns are engrained in the culture of the residents. Advocates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Civil Liberties Union said a person who has been successfully treated for mental illness should be able to possess a gun.

Janice Reichelt told the committee her son faced a criminal charge that was later dismissed, but he was temporarily institutionalized during the ordeal.

“Is it really fair to my husband and I … to never have a gun in our home because he was once committed?” she asked.

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