Mental health records not a priority for background checks in Mass.



Lexi Wessel

Contributing Writer


Mental health is arguably one of the most important aspects of firearm purchases plaguing the US today. This aspect is often looked over when routine background checks are being conducted in the Massachusetts gun industry daily.

According to The Boston Globe, “Massachusetts has submitted just one mental health record to the federal database since 1999 — apparently as a test — at the same time that the FBI has processed 1.6 million background checks of Bay State residents who seek to buy guns from federally licensed dealers.”

Massachusetts isn’t alone in this figure. It is just one of 14 states that skip this step in their background checks. The Boston Globe reports that, “Massachusetts is one of 22 states that do not have official polices enabling or requiring the submission of such information.” In 2009 and again in 2011, Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick submitted legislation that would do what other states were doing–send the names of any person who had been adjudicated mentally ill or “involuntarily committed” to any institituition  to a national database.

Patrick’s 2013 proposed gun legislation is very similar to the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act that passed through both houses in New York state one month after the Sandy Hook shooting. The law enforces that gun sales and licensing would be more regulated and impose stricter punishments for violation of gun laws. An article in ViewPoint by Dr. Jeffrey Swanson says, “The law also requires mental health professionals-psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses- to report to local mental health authorities the names of all participants deemed likely to seriously harm themselves or others.”

Tim O’Leary, deputy director of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, said in an email response, “There is nothing more stigmatizing to a person with a mental illness or emotional disorder than when someone with an untreated mental illness gets a hold of a gun and kills someone or a group of people. If any group should be in the forefront of realistic gun control it’s people with mental illness.”

O’Leary says many people think that by entering mentally ill patients into a national database it is stigmatizing those individuals. However, the entered information would not be able to be accessed unless that said individual tries to purchase a firearm. The persons responsible for denying or accepting the gun license would be the only individuals informed of the reasons one fails the check.  There is another prong to this suggested idea, the removal of names. If individuals were able to produce a medical record stating that they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, then their name would then be able to be removed from the list. The concept of name removal raises questions. Is it possible that mentally ill patients will lie to medical professionals in order to be deemed mentally stable, giving the approval to purchase firearms?

With the 2013 proposed law by Patrick, it would require that social workers, a category which includes school guidance counselors, report any behavior that causes them to believe a child is a danger to themselves or others. However, it may be difficult to differentiate aggressive behavior in children from a student who is simply going through a phase, experiences a lower status in social situations or acts impulsively.

This is one likely loophole in the mental health background check. There is no exact definition of what makes someone a danger to themselves or to others. That leaves the whole concept up to personal discretion. Without this clear definition it allows individuals to slip through the gaps on technicalities. Mental illnesses aren’t black and white, which adds another element to the struggle of defining it.

O’Leary said that the New York legislation does not require adjudication, but rather requires a psychiatrist to send in the names they feel are likely to be a danger. He noted that Dr. Lynne Fenton, psychiatrist of Aurora, Colo shooter James Holmes, has already been sued because of failure to disclose possible harmful acts.  O’Leary writes, “My suspicion is that psychiatrists, like other doctors, are going to become defensive and start sending in names, as a way to guard against further lawsuits.”  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) compiled a list of risk factors for violent behavior as well as warning signs. Some of the risk factors include exposure to violence in the media like television and movies, previous aggressive or violent behavior and presence of firearms in homes. Warning signs include intense anger, frequent loss of temper, extreme irritability and becoming easily frustrated. The ACCAP recommends that early intervention is one of the most beneficial instances that can take place with children exhibiting these signs. However, this isn’t only up to the school officials to deem the child a danger, but the parents have to be on the same page. O’Leary said, “The tragedy at Newtown is a tipping point and I think the mental health community needs to focus on supporting rational restrictions rather than opposing virtually everything as stigmatizing,” kind of a don’t knock it until you try it mentality.

In the United States today, if people can’t pass a background check when purchasing a firearm, you can still obtain one through private vendors.

According to documents released by The White House on President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence, “Right now, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks on those buying guns, but studies estimate that nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers who are exempt from this requirement.”

They call this the gun show loophole. “A national survey of inmates found that only 12 percent of those who used a gun in a crime acquired it from a retail store or pawn shop, where a background check should have been run,” according to that same White House document.

In the new documentary, Living For 32, Colin Goddard, a wounded survivor from the Virginia Tech shooting demonstrated the ease of buying firearms through private sellers. In one case, he walked up to a booth and purchased a firearm without showing his driver’s license. The vendor simply asked him for his birth date.

There was no background check, definitely no mental health check done or even a check to insure he was an American citizen.  In another film case, Goddard walked up to a man with rifles hanging over his arm and a piece of white ruled paper over the barrel saying, “For sale.” Goddard walks up to the man and asks him if he can buy a gun. Again, no check of licenses or background checks were done. Colin handed the man $400 and walked away with a powerful firearm.


Lexi Wessell can be contacted at

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