Obama proposes rules to strengthen gun background check system

Peter Mlekuz

The Obama administration on Friday put forward two proposals to strengthen the federal gun background check system so that relevant mental health information is shared more efficiently with the states. In the absence of any hope for congressional action on the issue of gun control, the proposals are for two new executive actions.  

The first proposal, from the Justice Department, is for more specific regulations clarifying who is prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law for reasons related to mental health. For instance, the agency would clarify that the statutory term “committed to a mental institution” includes involuntary inpatient as well as outpatient commitments. The rule change comes in response to complaints from states that the terminology used to bar people from purchasing guns for mental health reasons is too ambiguous.

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  • The second proposed regulation from the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department in response to state complaints that they can’t submit relevant information to the federal background check system because of privacy provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPAA). The proposed HHS rule would give certain HIPAA-covered entities permission to submit limited information to the background check system.

    “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,” the White House said in a statement. “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.”

    The White House also noted that while the “vast majority of Americans who experience 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.”

    In a news conference last month, President Obama said he continues to believe it was a “mistake” for the Senate not to pass a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers, but highlighted gun control efforts at the state level that he said could make a real difference in curbing gun violence.

    The Obama administration has stepped up its efforts to share information with the states for background checks -- in September, the Justice Department awarded $27.5 million to 42 states and one territory to increase information sharing and bolster the federal background check system. The administration is proposing spending $50 million more in 2014 on that effort.