Federal law prohibits people from buying or possessing a gun if they have been legally deemed mentally defective or committed to a mental health institution. A national database uses information submitted by states to determine whether those buying guns should be disqualified because of mental health or other problems.
Differences between U.S. and Georgia gun laws mean the state does not collect information on one group who should be banned — people forced to receive out-patient treatment for mental illness or substance abuse. Since state officials do not have this information in the database, checking it would not prevent those receiving mandatory out-patient treatment from buying a gun.
“Right now, we are not collecting involuntary outpatient treatments,” said Terry Gibbons, deputy director of the Georgia Crime Information Center, which compiles the records.
There are other reasons records don’t turn up, law enforcement and judicial officials said. In some cases, treatment providers do not report the information. Also, courts do not forward involuntary treatment orders because processing the paperwork takes time, costs money or they have concerns about violating medical privacy laws.
“I do think we have a low reporting rate,” said Gibbons, one of several state officials involved in talks to fix the problem.
A bill adopted by Georgia’s House of Representatives could eliminate the loophole. Right now, Georgia law focuses on keeping guns away from people who have been involuntarily hospitalized. In a similar manner, probate court judges can deny a license to carry a weapon if an applicant has received in-patient care for mental illness or substance abuse in the last five years.
Those laws do not require the state to keep track of people forced to receive out-patient treatment.
Legislation adopted last week by Georgia’s House would close part of the information gap. The plan sponsored by Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper) would force courts to forward all records of involuntarily treatment, regardless of whether it is in-patient or out-patient. Those who have received involuntary treatment in the last five years could be prohibited from getting a license to carry a gun under Jasperse’s plan.
His bill now heads to the Senate but faces opposition for other reasons — for example, provisions allowing people to carry guns in bars, churches and parts of college campuses.
Officials in Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration identified the information gap in mental health records as an issue during discussions over the past year, said Kristie Swink, a spokeswoman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The department has not taken a position on Jasperse’s plan, but Swink said the legislation would force courts to forward the now-missing information.
Jasperse’s bill would loosen restrictions in other areas, a prospect that concerns probate court judges who issue the licenses allowing people to carry firearms.
Under current law, judges have discretion over whether to issue licenses to carry a firearm to people who receive in-patient care for mental health or substance abuse problems in the last five years. The latest Republican-backed plan would not disqualify people who voluntarily seek treatment.
Judge Lynwood Jordan, a Republican who sits on the Forsyth County Probate Court, said that could create problems. He started license revocation proceedings against a man whose treatment provider had warned the patient was a danger and should not have weapons in his home. Although the man received in-patient treatment, it was not reported to the state. Since the man was not involuntarily treated, he could be eligible to receive a license under the proposed rules.
Jordan said the man voluntarily gave up his license to carry a gun.
“The report came back clean,” Jordon said, speaking of the man’s background check. “It wasn’t until two or three years later that we discovered he had been in the hospital.”