State officials say they’re fixing the problems that kept 18 Alabama counties from putting people ordered into mental health treatment on the federal list of those who can’t buy guns.
For those who deal with guns and mental health on a regular basis, though, the problem is much bigger than a few missed background checks.
“There are a lot of people with mental illnesses who haven’t been committed,” said Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade. “The problem is there’s almost no help for these people, period.”
More than a month has passed since state officials first announced that 18 of the state’s 67 probate judges weren’t in compliance with a state law that requires them to notify the state law enforcement agency every time they order someone into mental health treatment against their will.
Those names get added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a list that’s used to block felons, fugitives and other putatively dangerous people from buying guns. The list is also used by sheriffs, who can block people from getting concealed carry permits.
Probate judges last month cited a variety of reasons for not reporting the names. Some said they tried to mail reports to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and found that they were sent back. Two judges said they had no mental health commitments to report, and several noted that there are few mental facilities with open beds anyway.
Two judges, Ryan Robertson of Cleburne County and William Oswalt of Fayette County, said they chose not to send in the reports, claiming the decision to send or not send was up to them.
State lawmakers referred the issue to Attorney General Steve Marshall last month, hinting that there might be action against two unnamed judges for refusing to comply with the reporting law. Last week, Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Birmingham, said the AG and the judges are working things out.
“They are working with all 18 counties to get them compliant,” said Treadaway, who filed the complaint. He said Marshall’s staff were working with ALEA and the judges – including judges who’d previously filed no reports at all – to work out problems in the reporting system.
AG spokesman Mike Lewis said Friday that the office was working with the state Probate Judges’ Association “to address the issue through training and a new electronic filing system.”
Treadaway still wonders how many people were able to buy guns when they shouldn’t have.
“How far back does this go?” he said. “If one person has a gun in violation of the law, that’s a danger we need to do something about.”
There are now about 15 million people on the background check list nationwide, according to FBI numbers, 4.6 million of whom are there because of a mental health ruling. Since background checks started 20 years ago, 33,155 people have been denied a gun for mental health reasons.
To some people, the reasons for adding mental health patients to the list seem obvious. Some mass murderers, such as the killer in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, had mental health commitments in their records before their shooting sprees.
But most don’t. The notion of a strong connection between mental illness and gun violence irks some advocates and researchers. When a mentally ill person buys a gun, researchers say, the biggest danger is likely to the gun-buyer himself.
“The real risk is self-harm,” said Brent Teasdale, a criminology professor at Illinois State University. “For someone who is suicidal, the gun can function as a kind of fetish object that makes suicidal ideation easier.”
Alabama had the nation’s second-highest firearm death rate in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 1,000 deaths statewide. Historically, suicide has accounted for more than half the state’s gun deaths.