HELENA — The father of a victim in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings urged Montana lawmakers Thursday to pass legislation requiring the state to turn over records that would help prevent the mentally ill from buying guns.
A panel of lawmakers is considering whether to recommend to the Legislature next year changing a law that prohibits the state from submitting the names of people involuntarily committed to mental facilities for federal gun background checks.
Virginia now has a similar requirement to turn over those records, but it didn’t when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty members, said Peter Read, whose daughter Mary was among the victims.
Cho previously was ruled to be a threat to himself because of mental illness, but he was able to pass federal gun background checks and buy two guns from licensed firearms dealers.
If Virginia had bolstered its reporting requirements earlier, “My daughter might very well be alive today,” Read said.
Montana is one of 15 states that do not report that information for background checks, and changing the law could prevent another tragedy, he said.
“It is very effective at preventing firearms transfers to very dangerous people,” Read said of the background checks. “The Montana Legislature should require that its courts and hospitals report this information to NICS as quickly as possible.”
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.
To be barred from buying a gun due to mental illness, a person has to have been involuntarily committed, be a danger to himself or others, lack the mental capacity to manage his own affairs or be found by a court to be insane or incompetent to stand trial.
Montana has confidentiality laws protecting the mentally ill that bar it from turning over their records for federal background checks.
The background check program run by the FBI, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, already can access many of those records by searching Montana’s criminal history records, said Jennifer Viets of the Montana Department of Justice.
But Viets said the FBI can’t access the names of people who have been involuntarily committed in the state, which could potentially number between 12,000 and 20,000 people.
Identifying information would be included in the data turned over to the FBI, but no medical information about the person, she said.
Veterans’ and mental health organizations have raised concerns that the prospect of losing their future gun rights may prevent some mentally ill people from seeking the help they need.
A recently returned veteran may be fearful of a counselor’s or psychiatrist’s ruling on his mental state without properly understanding what he went through in combat, said Mervin Gunderson of the American Legion.
Any change in law also would have to guarantee that there is some way to recover their weapons if they successfully complete treatment, Gunderson said.
Matt Koontz of the National Alliance on Mental Illness also said legislators must ensure that people who are temporarily detained in an emergency situation are not categorized as being involuntarily committed.
“I beg you, please make sure that those people’s rights aren’t affected, as well,” Koontz said. “A lot of families have to make a tough decision about whether to call the police” to help a son or daughter in an emergency.
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