Legislation introduced last week by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas would incentivize states to better report psychiatric records to the federal background check system. The bill drew praise from both the National Rifle Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But some mental health experts warn that the proposal would actually reduce the effectiveness of the current background check system by limiting the number of records FBI inspectors can draw upon when deciding if someone can safely purchase a gun.

Their criticism hinges on what are known as involuntary commitment orders, which, in most cases, judges issue to people who are acutely unstable and show signs of being a danger to themselves or others. These orders expire after a designated time, sometimes as little as 14 days, or as soon as the individual is released from involuntary psychiatric treatment. Under current law, people involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities are prohibited indefinitely from purchasing or possessing a firearm, unless they are able to prove to a judicial body that they are no longer a danger.

That process, known as relief from disabilities, varies by state. In New York, for instance, a formerly committed individual submits their past 20 years of psychiatric and medical records to the Office of Mental Health (OMH), which reviews those materials before determining whether the applicant can buy a gun. If the OMH approves the application, they notify the FBI to remove the applicant’s name from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which keeps files on people prohibited from buying firearms. The Cornyn bill would allow a person involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital to buy a gun once their commitment order has expired. At the same time, the files marking them as a prohibited purchaser would be removed from the database.

“It would be a striking relaxation of current restrictions,” Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatry professor Columbia University, tells The Trace. “Episodes of illness frequently continue, especially these days, when there’s a short-term model of hospitalization.”

After reaching a peak of 560,000 people institutionalized in the 1960s, the number of people receiving inpatient psychiatric care fell dramatically to about 130,000 in 1980. This has, in part, been driven by the rise of antipsychotic drugs, which can allow people with severe mental illness to live safely outside institutions. Another factor has been the shrinking pool of state funds for public psychiatric facilities: During the period from 2005 to 2010, the number of dedicated psychiatric beds in public hospitals fell by nearly 8,000 to 43,218 across all 50 states. The trend from long-term commitment to shorter-term care was well underway when the Brady background check bill and its rules prohibiting gun access for those involuntarily committed went into effect in 1993. But the landmark legislation called for records on those committed to be maintained indefinitely in NICS, providing a measure of safety once they left residential care.

The proposed change to the current background check system comes in one sentence of the 94-page Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, as Cornyn’s bill is called. The legislation also includes funding for programs to help keep the mentally ill out of prison, which drew commendation from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But Ron Honberg, NAMI’s director of policy and legal affairs, says that he voiced his concerns to Cornyn’s staff about how the legislation would remove records of those involuntarily committed from the background check system as soon as they leave a treatment facility. Like Applebaum, he worried that many court-mandated hospital stays are too brief to permanently stabilize a mentally ill person. “Commitments are often for a very short period of time,” says Honberg.

The Trace contacted Senator Cornyn’s office to ask why it proposed changing the law to remove those involuntarily committed to psychiatric care from NICS once their order of commitment expires. In an email response, a spokesman for Senator Cornyn addressed the federal status of relief from disabilities procedures, instead of the initial query. A follow up email went unanswered.

The contested provision of Cornyn’s bill resembles an amendment Senators Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley proposed to Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey’s failed 2013 background check bill. Appelbaum coauthored an editorial opposing that measure, and he doesn’t like this bill, either.

“What’s problematic about it is the assumption that dangerousness is like a switch,” he says, “that as soon as someone’s commitment order expires, they’re never going to hurt anyone. That isn’t how the mind works.”

Appelbaum also stressed that from his perspective as a mental health professional, the recent focus on mental illness and guns is misplaced. After mass shootings, many politicians raise the spectre of severely mentally ill individuals causing harm, but the data shows that the mentally ill are rarely dangerous to strangers. And even though mental health records account for the second largest category of records accessible to NICS, with 3.8 million active files in the federal database, the relatively small number of denials due to mental health rulings — only 18,678 total since the background check system was launched in 1998 — suggest few mentally ill people try to get their hands on guns.

“We have an irrationally directed system that’s trying to parse people with mental disorders in a way that will have at best a marginal contribution to public safety,” says Appelbaum.

[Photo: Flickr user Daniel Mee]