FACT SHEET: Strengthening the Federal Background Check System to Keep Guns out of Potentially Dangerous Hands
Today, the Administration is announcing two new executive actions that will help strengthen the federal background check system and keep guns out of the wrong hands. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is proposing a regulation to clarify who is prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law for reasons related to mental health, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is issuing a proposed regulation to address barriers preventing states from submitting limited information on those persons to the federal background check system.
Too many Americans have been severely injured or lost their lives as a result of gun violence. While the vast majority of Americans who experience a mental illness are not violent, in some cases when persons with a mental illness do not receive the treatment they need, the result can be tragedies such as homicide or suicide.
The Administration takes a comprehensive approach to mental health issues by expanding coverage of mental health services so care is affordable, launching a national conversation on mental health to reduce stigma associated with having a mental illness and getting help, directing funds we have now to improve mental health facilities, and proposing more funds be used for efforts such as training additional mental health professionals.
At the same time, the Administration is committed to making sure that anyone who may pose a danger to themselves or others does not have access to a gun. The federal background check system is the most effective way to assure that such individuals are not able to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. To date, background checks have prevented over two million guns from falling into the wrong hands.
The Administration’s two new executive actions will help ensure that better and more reliable information makes its way into the background check system. The Administration also continues to call on Congress to pass common-sense gun safety legislation and to expand funding to increase access to mental health services.
Progress to Strengthen the Federal Background Check System
Over the past year, the Administration has taken several steps to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used to run background checks on those who buy guns from federally licensed gun dealers to make sure they are not prohibited by law from owning a firearm. For example:
The President directed federal agencies to make all relevant records, including criminal history records and information related to persons prohibited from having guns for mental health reasons, available to the federal background check system. This effort is beginning to bear fruit. In the first nine months after the President’s directive, federal agencies have made available to the NICS over 1.2 million additional records identifying persons prohibited from possessing firearms, nearly a 23% increase from the number of records federal agencies had made available by the end of January.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives published a letter to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.
States are one of the key sources of data on persons prohibited from having guns, including felons and those prohibited for mental health reasons. That’s why the President took action to invest an additional $20 million this year to improve incentives for states to share this information with the federal background check system. In September 2013, DOJ awarded $27.5 million to 42 states and one territory to strengthen the firearms background check system by improving their abilities to share information with the NICS. In addition, the Administration is proposing $50 million for this purpose in FY2014, and Congress should act to provide these critical resources.
Two New Actions to Further Strengthen the Federal Background Check System
Some states have reported that certain barriers under current law make it difficult for them to identify and submit appropriate information to the federal background check system regarding individuals prohibited under federal law from having a gun for mental health reasons. Today, DOJ and HHS are taking steps that will help address these barriers.
Some states have noted that the terminology used by federal law to prohibit people from purchasing a firearm for certain mental health reasons is ambiguous. Today, DOJ is issuing a proposed rule to make several clarifications. For example, DOJ is proposing to clarify that the statutory term “committed to a mental institution” includes involuntary inpatient as well as outpatient commitments. In addition to providing general guidance on federal law, these clarifications will help states determine what information should be made accessible to the federal background check system, which will, in turn, strengthen the system’s reliability and effectiveness.
Some states have also said that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPAA) privacy provisions may be preventing them from making relevant information available to the background check system regarding individuals prohibited from purchasing a firearm for mental health reasons. In April 2013, HHS began to identify the scope and extent of the problem, and based on public comments is now issuing a proposed rule to eliminate this barrier by giving certain HIPAA covered entities an express permission to submit to the background check system the limited information necessary to help keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands. The proposed rule will not change the fact that seeking help for mental health problems or getting treatment does not make someone legally prohibited from having a firearm. Furthermore, nothing in the proposed rule would require reporting on general mental health visits or other routine mental health care, or would exempt providers solely performing these treatment services from existing privacy rules.
Calling on Congress to Act
While the President and the Vice President continue to do everything they can to reduce gun violence, Congress must also act. Passing common-sense gun safety legislation – including expanding background checks and making gun trafficking a federal crime – remains the most important step we can take to reduce gun violence. The vast majority of Americans support these critical measures, which would protect our children and our communities without infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights.
In addition, the President’s FY 2014 Budget proposes a new $130 million initiative to address several barriers that may prevent people – especially youth and young adults – from getting help for mental health problems. The President and the Vice President continue to call on Congress to appropriate funds for these important purposes.