People who have been committed because of mental illness and those who have been ruled mentally incompetent are barred from buying guns. Their names are supposed to be listed in the national background check database -- but these records are very spotty. For example, the Virginia Tech shooter's name should have been in that data base but wasn't.

 

After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, federal grant money was offered to states to upgrade these records, but not much has happened.

The coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns is now putting pressure on state and federal governments to act.

The organization's website features a new, interactive map; click on your state and it returns the number of mental illness-related records that have been submitted.

The spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who co-chairs the mayors' coalition against illegal guns, says the numbers are very small.

"If you have a background check and the data is not entered in the system, it's pretty much useless," said Marc LaVorgna. "What we have is 21 states and the District of Columbia have shared fewer than 100 records with the federal background check system."

New Jersey is one of the states that received federal money to upgrade the flow of mental-illness related records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, NICS.

About half a million paper records dating to 1975 will be entered into a database by the end of the year, according to Kevin Wolfe of New Jersey's administrative office of the courts. Some of these records are stored in warehouses, others in county offices.

"We are hiring outside contractors to do that, to physically go through the files. There are seven counties that we're in, starting the backloading, and we will reach out to all 21 counties in New Jersey and get that information," he said.

 

Wolfe explained that the state is creating a system where new records will reach the NICS database immediately. "Going forward, if you are committed, that information will then be put into the data base, probably the same day that the commitment order is signed," Wolfe said. "And you will then be uploaded into the state police and FBI database."

Concern from mental health community

New Jersey mental health advocates are concerned about these efforts, because they say it is painting all people with serious mental illness with a broad brush.

Phil Lubitz of NAMI New Jersey says people with mental illnesses are not typically violent. A person could, for example, be committed for severe depression, and then receive treatment and recover.

Given the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, what's really making him nervous is the thought of contractors going through thousands of very private records.

"That's a large number of records, probably too large a number to be handled with the sensitivity I think that they would require," Lubitz said.

Wolfe says the administrative office of the courts makes contractors sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement.  He adds that the commitment data that is back loaded does not include details about the underlying mental health condition that prompted the commitment.

New Jersey officials say the technology to enter records in real time should be in place by early 2013.