A shooting that grievously injured two New Hampshire police officers has shocked the state, and split politicians over whether to report mental health records to gun background check systems.
Ian MacPherson, 32, is accused of shooting two Manchester officers in mid-May with a gun he bought legally from a licensed dealer. He passed a federal background check despite the fact that he has long suffered from schizophrenia, and received inpatient psychiatric care several times. The MacPherson case has become a flashpoint in the state’s gubernatorial election, since New Hampshire provides very few mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
According to a new report by Everytown for Gun Safety, New Hampshire is one of just four states — along with Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming — that have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records in total to NICS. (Everytown is a seed donor to The Trace).
Under federal law, individuals who have been involuntarily committed to inpatient mental hospitals or determined to be mentally ill by a judge are prohibited from buying guns. That ban does not apply to people who have been involuntarily committed to outpatient care, or have been diagnosed with serious psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia without being involuntarily committed or adjudicated mentally ill.
States are responsible for feeding the records that indicate such determinations or hospital commitments to the FBI’s NICS system, and they have considerable discretion over whether to do so. In 2014, the New Hampshire legislature considered a bill that would have brought the state into compliance with NICS reporting requirements, but state Republicans killed the measure.
Jeanie Forester, a New Hampshire state senator running for governor, has said she wouldn’t agree to a reporting mandate until she consulted with state psychiatric officials. Chris Sununu, a local Republican elected official, told the New Hampshire Union-Leader that providing mental health records to NICS leads “down a slippery slope of discriminatory practices.”
All three Democratic candidates have said they think the state should require reporting of mental health records. The primary election is on September 13.
States that don’t require mental health facilities to report cases to the FBI have become lonely outliers. In 2011, 23 states received poor marks from Everytown for their reporting requirements, meaning each has provided fewer than 100 records to the FBI. (That’s when Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an early iteration of Everytown, began using Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the number of records each state contributes.)
Most of those states have since adopted new policies or laws. Since December, both Vermont and Oklahoma have improved NICS mental health records reporting.
The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting led to heightened awareness of gaps in state laws and rules that allowed mentally ill patients to legally purchase firearms, in violation of federal law. Seung-Hui Cho, who shot and killed 32 people on the campus, had previously been involuntarily committed to outpatient mental health treatment after he made suicidal statements. Gun violence prevention advocates have pressured states to improve their reporting.
Some healthcare professionals have expressed concern that people with mental illnesses are being unfairly stigmatized as violent, when they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. There are other categories of behavior, such a history of alcohol abuse or aggressive outbursts, that more strongly indicate that someone will be a violent risk than mental illness. (The mentally ill are more likely, on aggregate, to commit a violent crime than the average person, but this is because they are also more likely to exhibit one of these other high-risk factors).
In the MacPherson case, it is not clear that even if New Hampshire had been reporting relevant records, he would have been blocked from buying the gun he used to shoot two police officers. It isn’t known whether his stays in psychiatric facilities were long enough to qualify as prohibiting him from purchasing a firearm. And while his family says he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, there’s no evidence a judge ever ruled on his mental fitness.