Arizona commission wants to improve state reporting for gun checks

Commission pushes for review of police access to health files
2013-03-22T00:00:00Z 2013-03-26T09:33:00Z Arizona commission wants to improve state reporting for gun checksCarli Brosseau Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In Arizona, police officers have no way to know whether a person has been found by a judge to have a seriously incapacitating mental illness.

They don't know when they are approaching a vehicle during a traffic stop, and they don't know when they hand a seized gun back to its owner inside police headquarters.

Under state law, those mental health records can be shared with the federal government for the purpose of background checks during gun purchases at federally licensed dealers, but they cannot be shared with local law enforcement.

That fact - and the desire to change it - helped ensure continued political support Thursday for efforts to improve Arizona's reporting into the background check system used when a person tries to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer. That system is known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or more commonly, NICS.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission voted unanimously Thursday to support recommendations to bolster the state's NICS reporting, but only after adding a review of laws pertaining to local law enforcement's access to mental health records to the long list of the project consultants' to do's.

The vote by the group of statewide criminal justice officials was also conditioned on a clarification of how to ensure that felons who have had their Second Amendment rights restored at the state level can pass the federal background check.

But perhaps the most important caveat to the vote was that it did not involve the allocation of any money. Funds were not dedicated to the effort in Gov. Jan Brewer's state budget plan, a fact that threatened to topple the effort altogether.

Commission program manager Pat Nelson had earlier estimated the cost of implementing the recommendations at about $28 million, but board members clarified and re-clarified at Thursday's meeting that no cost breakdown had been made and no state funds had been promised.

"There is no money in this," said David Byers, the state's administrative director of the courts, by way of introducing the measures.

The burden of many of the recommended process changes falls to the courts.

The recommendations approved Thursday include:

• Establishing specific data stewardship guidelines to make each law enforcement agency responsible only for the charges it establishes or adjudicates.

• Modifying the state's disposition reporting system to show what phase of the process the charges are in.

• Creating scorecards that would reflect how well counties are updating their records with outcomes.

• Improving the database systems used for protective orders, mental health records and warrants.

• Providing technical assistance for systems upgrades.

Among the acknowledged holes in records reporting that have not so far received much scrutiny is how to include negative drug-test records.

Under federal rules, a person is not eligible to own a gun if they have failed a drug test in the past year or have been arrested within the last year on a drug charge or multiple times in the past five years on drug charges.

"It is our understanding now that Jared Lee Loughner failed a drug test when he was trying to enter the military," said project consultant Anthony Coulson, referring to the gunman in the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson. "He technically would have been a prohibited possessor."

Arizona currently reports only a portion of the mental health records required. It sends records related to people who are involuntarily committed for mental health reasons, but not those found by a judge to be an "incapacitated person" or "not competent" for mental health reasons.

Coulson estimates that only about one-tenth of Arizona's relevant mental health records are entered into the federal repository.

The next step, he said, is to create action plans for each of the recommendations.

The project has so far received about $1.5 million in federal funding, Nelson said. To keep the project going, administrators are hoping to secure more federal grants.

Legal reasons preventing gun ownership

• Convicted of a felony or a state misdemeanor and sentenced to two or more years in prison.

• Fugitive on an active warrant.

• Medical marijuana cardholder.

• Arrested within the last year on a drug charge or multiple times in the past five years on a drug charge.

• Failed a drug test in the past year.

• Adjudicated to be mentally defective or involuntarily committed or incompetent to manage own affairs.

• Illegal immigrant.

• Dishonorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces.

• Renounced U.S. citizenship.

• Subject of a protective order after having received notice and a hearing.

• Convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.

• Under indictment.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau

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