Since a national database for background checks was created nearly 15 years ago, South Carolina has submitted records for 34 people banned from buying a firearm because of a mental illness.
About the bill
It would amend a 1976 privacy law relating to mental health information.It would create a database of people adjudicated mentally defective, such as someone deemed by a court to be incompetent, or people involuntarily sent to a mental institution.Records would be sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.Records cannot contain information about diagnosis or treatment and must be disclosed only to the State Law Enforcement Division and NICS.If a person whose name is entered into NICS already has a concealed-weapons permit, that permit should be revoked.For $150, a banned person may petition the court for removal from the database. The bill spells out what conditions must be in place for a court to rule in a petitioner’s favor. An example of such a condition would be a ruling that the person is no longer a danger to society.
Provided by the FBI in October, the data makes the Palmetto State one of the worst in the nation when it comes to reporting such records.
Joann Monnin-Debevec of the Charleston affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness encourages people with family members suffering a mental illness to seek help from her agency. The group is planning classes this spring about coping with mental illness. Call 871-1009 or visit nami.org/sites/ namicharlestonarea.
Coupled with a recent incident involving a mentally ill woman in downtown Charleston, the statistic prompted Democratic and Republican state lawmakers to draft legislation requiring courts and law agencies to send certain mental health records to the federal database.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, announced the push Monday as he stood outside the Ashley Hall school, where the police said Alice Boland pointed a gun at an official and pulled the trigger Feb. 4. The gun didn’t go off because no round was in the chamber.
Boland had purchased the pistol legally, despite facing a felony charge for threatening to kill the president. The count was dropped after she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Stavrinakis said the bill, which is expected to be introduced in Columbia this week, would require that such a case be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System so that it prevents a gun purchase.
The state’s current system contains a loophole, he said, that makes it “one of the least effective, least comprehensive.”
“We didn’t have the ultimate disaster here ... but not because the system was working,” said Stavrinakis, whose niece attends Ashley Hall. “It was just luck and the grace of God that it didn’t happen.”
If approved, the bill would amend a 1976 law guarding the confidentiality of commitment records. It adds an exception that allows for the records’ disclosure to the backgrounding database.
The bill would assign to the Judicial Department and SLED’s chief the task of maintaining a database of people deemed by a court to be “mentally defective” or who have been involuntarily committed to an institution.
Names and identifying information must then be sent to the federal system.
Such a law should not run afoul of health privacy regulations because the data are based on public information, Stavrinakis said. Doctors will not be asked to violate privacy rules, he added.
The court filings in Boland’s case, for example, were readily available for anyone looking for them. The Post and Courier was the first to report on the extent of her past.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., intends to file similar legislation in Washington that might hit some privacy obstacles.
And privacy remains the primary concern for mental health advocates in the state.
Bill Lindsey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of South Carolina, said he supports a provision in the bill that the records be made privy only to the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI, which maintains the national database.
Lindsey added that a committal might come back to haunt a person who wants to buy a gun for legitimate reasons.
But the bill spells out a process through which a name can be removed from the database through a court ruling.
“If this (proposed law) keeps a couple of folks from falling through the cracks, then I guess we’ll have to go along with it,” Lindsey said. “It’s not my favorite outcome.”
Joann Monnin-Debevec, president of the Charleston affiliate of the alliance, called the proposal an “exceptional idea.”
But she urged people with a mentally ill relative to find help before a condition becomes dire.
Monnin-Debevec said Boland’s case and the ensuing media coverage have perpetuated a stigma. Both she and Lindsey explained that mentally ill people typically are the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.
“It amazes me that (Boland) was ever able to purchase a gun,” she said. “But mental illness is a family problem. We should be teaching families how to deal with it better.”
Republican House members and Attorney General Alan Wilson are expected to discuss their support for the legislation today. Stavrinakis said that the bill’s drafting has been a collaborative effort between lawmakers and SLED.
Some of the 56 parents who signed a letter urging such legislation joined Stavrinakis at Ashley Hall.
Catherine Poston, whose daughter attends the Rutledge Avenue school, recalled for reporters how she saw little feet scurrying back inside when a woman waved a gun outside. Now, her daughter suffers nightmares.
Michel Faliero, who started the effort to send the letter to federal and state legislators, said she has been astonished by the response. But her focus, she said, has been her four daughters, who have struggled to cope.
“It’s really the aftermath,” she said. “The kids are asking, ‘What happened? Can that happen again?’”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.