Gun bill would excuse sheriffs from conducting mental health checks

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

— County sheriffs would no longer check to see whether applicants for concealed handgun permits have mental health issues that could disqualify them, under a bill introduced last week in the General Assembly.

HB310 would instead rely on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which the FBI maintains. The system relies on states reporting information on those who aren’t eligible, but as many as 2 million mental health records are not in the system, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Under a 2008 law, North Carolina is required to report mental health data to the system, referred to as NICS.

Grass Roots North Carolina is behind HB310. Paul Valone, president of the gun-rights group, says if information isn’t available from some states in the federal system then it isn’t available to county sheriffs, either.

And, Valone says, North Carolina’s sheriffs handle the mental health clearance arbitrarily and inconsistently. Current law requires applicants sign a release authorizing sheriffs to have access to their mental health records, if any, but it doesn’t require the sheriffs to track down any records.

Putting the mental health issue on the federal system rather than on county sheriffs avoids unnecessary duplication, is the thinking behind the bill. Valone calls it an update of a state law that has been in effect long before NICS, which was launched in 1998 as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Jefferson Republican, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, says he thinks mental health checks are important, but he is confident the federal system provides the necessary safeguards. Federal law disqualifies anyone who has been judged mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle their own affairs.

Gail Neely of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence says doing away with the extra check might be premature. “The sheriffs are more in touch with those who may have issues that are not on the radar but may be an issue that puts them at risk for gun ownership,” she says.

She says legislators’ time would be better spent improving mental health services, and getting better records into the national system.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson, Rep. Kelly Hastings of Cherryville, Rep. Mark Brody of Monroe and Rep. John Szoka of Fayetteville.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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