Why Data Is a Critical Part of the Solution to the Gun Violence Problem

In the wake of devastating mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas last fall, policymakers are feeling pressure to do more to protect citizens from gun violence.

Although federal law prohibits the sale of firearms to individuals with mental illness, lax reporting by states and our armed forces make it far too easy for people experiencing severe mental health problems to obtain firearms. The federal database that runs all background checks prior to purchasing a firearm is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check prior to the transfer of a firearm to screen out prohibited purchasers, but federal law does not require states to submit mental health information to NICS.

Many states fail to voluntarily report the necessary mental health records to the NICS, especially with respect to people prohibited from possessing guns for mental health reasons. As a result, some individuals known to have severe mental illness can pass background checks and obtain firearms. Effective background checks on prospective firearm purchasers depend on the existence of complete, accurate information in the NICS database.

Currently 43 out of 50 states either require or authorize the reporting of mental health information to the NICS. Out of the additional seven states, four have their own in-state databases, and three have no reporting requirements whatsoever. Out of the states that require NICS reporting, 25 have timing requirements for reporting ranging from “immediately” to “within 30 days”.

Despite a large percentage of states requiring or authorizing submission of records to NICS, the amount of mental health records actually found in the system is minimal. According to research by the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, in 2012 only about 30 percent of the estimated 4.4 million mental health records in the United States over the past two decades can be found in NICS. Fewer than 2 percent of all gun purchases blocked by the FBI over the past 16 years were because of mental health status. That amounts to 14,613 blocked sales since 1998. This does not include private party sales from gun shows.

The Department of Justice published an internal audit report of purchase denials through the NICS system. DOJ found that out of 631 transactions examined all but one "did not fully update the NICS database or inform the FBI of the transaction's outcome." This audit also reports that out of 205.5 million background checks completed 109 million were processed by internal state systems and not through NICS.

An advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, published a report in 2012 entitled “Fatal Gaps” which studied state underreporting of mental health records to NICS. They found twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal database. Seventeen states have submitted fewer than ten mental health records, and four states have not submitted any mental records at all. The result is millions of records identifying seriously mentally ill people as prohibited purchasers are missing from the federal background check database because of lax reporting.

Since Fatal Gaps was published, state reporting to NICS is on the rise. A campaign called “Fix NICS” complied the number of disqualifying mental health records provided by each state to NICS as of December 31, 2016, and ranked states accordingly. See the state rankings here. According to this data, there are no longer any states that have submitted zero mental health records to NICS, and the number of states with less than 100 records has shrunk to just three.

This past November, a bipartisan group of senators drafted a bill entitled the Fix NICS Act to further bolster NICS reporting. The bill creates incentives for states to send more information about criminal histories to the system as well as ensuring that federal agencies follow through on their own requirement to send information to the database. The proposal also includes punishments for agencies that don’t comply. The bill has been calendared for consideration during the next Congressional legislative session.

“For years agencies and states haven’t complied with the law, failing to upload these critical records without consequence,” bill author John Cornyn said in a statement announcing the effort. “Just one record that’s not properly reported can lead to tragedy.”

“This deal will strengthen the background check system and save lives, added coauthor Chris Murphy .

Further progress could be made to ensure NICS is a comprehensive system by helping states that already have “in-state” databases transfer their records to NICS, and fully fund NICS programs. Ensuring those with severe mental illness cannot purchase firearms will not solve all our nation’s gun violence issues, but making the current system more robust will ensure all relevant data is being shared amongst states to protect its citizens.