Few gun sales denied on mental illness grounds

Released: 
September 23, 2013

Background checks on gun purchasers find only a tiny fraction with enough of a mental illness record to deny the sale.

Last week a gunman opened fire in the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 and wounding others - a tragic headline that has become all too familiar in a year of shooting after shooting. This past weekend memorial services were held as victims of other shootings banded together to say that the outpourings of grief aren't enough. During his eulogy for the latest victims, President Obama acknowledged that despite the failure of his gun control efforts earlier this year action is still needed, and called for a renewal of efforts for both gun control laws and screening and treatment for mental illness.

With this latest shooter's history of mental illness issues, that particular part of the shooting phenomenon is taking the spotlight with lawmakers. Major mental health issues won't always show up on a background check, but these checks are still the front line in the effort to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Today we take another look back at a fact examining the effectiveness of this key tool.

Mandatory background checks on would-be gun purchasers have identified relatively few with histories of mental illness – perhaps owing in part to lack of data.

Between 1998 and 2009, 95 million potential buyers’ records were scanned. Just 0.03 percent were denied a gun over mental illness concerns.

An inadequate database might explain the slim findings. Money is one issue. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) struggles with dwindling funding.

Lax state participation is another issue. About half the states have not supplied their records, though participation increased following the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. After that incident, with more data to review, NICS files flagged for mental concerns increased from 175,000 to 400,000. By 2010, the number was up to 859,000. Since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut earlier this year, background checks have skyrocketed.

Check out our infographic for more on the challenges of identifying mental illness in background checks. See “What Do Others Say?” for more views, then add to the discussion below. How can we make a system already in place work more effectively? Are background checks enough?