Some Health Providers Can Now Report People “Mentally Unfit” To Buy A Gun

Previously, there was some confusion on the issue.

Some Health Providers Can Now Report People “Mentally Unfit” To Buy A Gun
[Photo: Flickr user Izzard]

The Obama administration made it abundantly clear on Tuesday that those with serious mental illness should be reported to the FBI’s database for background checks and prohibited from buying a gun.


In the past, some providers feared that it would be a violation of an individual’s privacy to report their mental illness to the FBI for inclusion on the bureau’s NICS database for background checks. In many cases, such records fell through the cracks. Infamously, in 2012, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was able to buy a gun despite being declared by Virginia Courts to be a danger to himself in 2005.

The new amendment to HIPAA, the national standards intended to protect Americans’ health information, clearly states that certain providers–such as local courts, criminal justice agencies, and some hospital directors–can and should report individuals to NICS who fall into one of the following categories: involuntarily committed to a mental institution; found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity; or determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

“This rule makes it as clear as day that there is no barrier or obstacle for providers to submit these records,” said Jonas Oransky, legal counsel to Everytown, an organization that advocates for gun safety.

This amendment is just one part of the White House’s broader push to curb gun violence.

On Tuesday, the president issued plans to spend $500 million to increase access to mental health care and mental health information for conducting background checks. He urged various government agencies to get involved, including the Social Security Administration.

But some experts are concerned about the ongoing association between gun violence and mental health.


“The great majority of people with mental illness are not violent,” said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. “Far more often, they are the victims of violence.”

Studies have found that mental health problems only slightly increase the likelihood of violence (the exception is violence towards oneself). For this reason, Honberg said his organization is pushing for new legislation to be based on scientific research.

Overall, however, Honberg is optimistic about the focus on mental health. Honberg said resources are in short supply to provide mental health treatment to those who need it, and to combat the stigma of mental illness.

“We’re seeing a heightened interest in mental health in Congress from both sides of the aisle,” he said. “The infusion of new resources is very helpful.”

About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED.