Editorial: State should share mental health records, cautiously
No one needs a gun to commit a murder, as the deaths of three New Hampshire residents in recent weeks demonstrate. Two were hacked to death and one was strangled. Nor are background checks for gun purchases, as some recent incidents of mass murder nationally prove, always capable of keeping weapons out of the hands of people with a history of a mental illness that might be at the root of the tragedy.
As Monitor reporter Annmarie Timmins noted last week, New Hampshire is one of a dozen states that have yet to share even minimal mental health records with the federal authorities charged with screening gun buyers. That has to change, but doing so won’t be easy. Great care will be required to protect the rights of the nearly 50 percent of Americans who, in a Harvard study, admit to having suffered, however briefly, from a psychiatric disorder and prevent the needless stigmatization of people with a mental illness. Yet it must be done.
John Zawahri, the young man charged with killing six people in a shooting spree in Santa Monica, Calif., last week, was evaluated psychiatrically seven years ago after making violent threats and being caught with bomb-making materials. He was nonetheless able to purchase the assault-style weapon used in the murders. Would such tragedies be prevented if states shared mental health records with the federal authorities who screen gun purchases? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to say, since even states that do share mental health records with federal screeners provide only limited data, According to a federal study reported by the Associated Press, 17 of the states that do share mental health records with federal authorities provided the records of fewer than 10 people. That means the checks that do exist offer little protection. The system must be improved.
Gov. Maggie Hassan has asked state lawmakers to study the problem and prepare legislation to allow the state to share mental health records with federal authorities so gun sellers are alerted when someone whose health history should prevent them from purchasing a weapon tries to buy one. We support that effort, but it should be guided by the wisdom demonstrated by veteran lawman Earl Sweeney, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Safety. Mental illness is an illness, not a crime, Sweeney told Timmins. “Mental illness can be treated . . . so there should be a way to make sure someone is not on (the database) for life if they are treated,” Sweeney said.
The rate of violence of people treated for mental illness is far lower than that for the population as a whole, but obviously people involuntarily committed to a mental hospital because they’ve been deemed a danger to themselves or others should be prevented from purchasing a firearm. But what if the commitment occurred decades ago? Should someone who voluntarily committed himself for anxiety or depression, say a hunter who wants to buy a new rifle, be turned away? How long should a ban last? Should someone who needs treatment or hospitalization after a breakup in his youth be forever barred from buying a gun? We think not.
Answering these questions will be tough. So far, the Legislature has avoided the task, but it will be remiss if it continues to do so. Whatever line is drawn won’t be fixed. It will have to move as science’s understanding of mental illness and medicine’s ability to treat it change.
Timmins began her story with this sentence: “For now, a person can be released from involuntary admission to the New Hampshire state hospital and buy a gun the same afternoon.” That does no one – the patient, family members, the public or gun dealers – any good. How New Hampshire joins the majority of states that submit mental health records to authorities who screen gun purchases remains to be decided. That it should do so is clear.