To Ross Loder, the push to strengthen gun background checks is anything but abstract.
It brings back memories of ordering dog-eared case files from storage, riffling through papers, and fielding thousands of calls from people with questions about their rights.
That’s because the last time Congress passed a law designed to encourage states to report records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, Loder stood on the front lines.
As the administrator responsible for weapons permits at the Iowa Department of Public Safety, Loder oversaw the review of 125,000 state mental health case files to figure out who should be prohibited from owning guns — but had not yet been entered into the database that houses the records of people banned from gun ownership. In a decision that turned his life upside down for most of a year, he mailed a letter with his office phone number on it to every single person who was being added to the system.
“Everything else stopped,” Loder said of the seven months during which he fielded as many as 40 calls a day from people who had been informed they were prohibited from buying guns. “It was a difficult time, but it was part of what needed to be done.”
Iowa’s effort to increase the number of records submitted to the federal background check system was spurred by the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007. The bill found bipartisan support after the Virginia Tech shooting, which left 32 people dead. The gunman, a student with a history of mental illness, had passed a background check to purchase the weapons used in the attack.
In all, Iowa added about 29,000 mental health records to the background check system, part of a national push that led to more than 4.5 million records being added nationwide over the last decade.
In March, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act. The bill will require federal agencies, and incentivize states, to enter more records into NICS. Because the federal government can’t force states to report more records to the background check system, nor tell them how to do so, Fix NICS calls for each state to make its own plan to improve its records reporting. For many states, that’s likely to look a lot like what Loder and his team in Iowa did: Unearthing records from storage and poring through countless files to determine who should be prohibited from buying guns.
“We approached it as a duty, whether it was required or not,” Loder said.
Iowa is a state that famously loves its guns. Blind people can get gun permits, concealed firearms are allowed in the state Capitol, and people who feel adversely affected by rules that prohibit firearms in places like city halls and courthouses are allowed to sue the local government for violating their civil rights.
Nevertheless, as is often the case even in places where Second Amendment rights are sacred, there was still support for bolstering background checks. Following the passage of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, the Iowa Legislature passed its own law committing to review all of its mental health records. Previously in the state, privacy laws had actually made it illegal for court administrators to put mental health records in the background check database. If a person who had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution went to purchase a gun at a licensed dealer, he or she would not be flagged. The only people who were stopped because of their mental health histories had volunteered the information when they went to buy a firearm. There were fewer than 100 such cases, Loder said.
(Iowa lawmakers actually had to pass the legislation twice before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives approved its wording. The state law didn’t stick until 2011.)
The work of identifying mental health records fell to court administrators. They searched a statewide electronic database and identified more than 100,000 cases that had the potential to disqualify people from buying guns — but where the outcomes were not clear. The next step was to flag cases for clerks in 99 county courthouses to review. But getting the case files out of storage, reading through them, and updating the dockets would take hundreds of hours of work — and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff salaries. Feeling overwhelmed, staff did little to review the records in the first few years after the legislation passed.
“In 2014, we finally said, ‘This is not okay,’” Loder said.
Federal grants were available through the NICS Improvement Amendments Act. But Loder had no idea how to estimate the cost of such a huge job. He asked the clerks in six different counties to time themselves as they went to a storage facility, pulled a box of files, brought it back to their offices, read the files, and updated their electronic records. Based on their salaries and the time it took, Loder came up with an estimate of how much the review would cost statewide — $415,000.
Iowa applied for, and received, a federal grant in that amount.
Loder decided that hiring a temporary workforce to complete the job was out of the question because of the sensitivity of the records. Instead, he asked dozens of court clerks to review a few files a day for the better part of a year. They stopped in the courthouse’s attic storage room on their way back from lunch, or ducked into the conference room for an hour while their colleagues were cleaning off their desks in the evenings, he said.
Loder said he was not surprised when he learned the clerks identified tens of thousands of disqualifying records that needed to be added to NICS.
Many of the Iowans whose mental health records had been discovered in the search had no idea that they were prohibited from owning guns, Loder said. Lawmakers and state officials debated whether they had a legal obligation to notify them of their status. Technically, the individuals had been prohibited from owning guns for years. Officials decided it was wise to send letters, since anyone unaware of their status might inadvertently commit a felony if they owned or tried to buy a gun.
The only question left was where people should call if they had questions about why they were being prohibited from buying a gun. Loder knew the calls would be sensitive — dealing with them was not a task that could be passed off to junior staff members. So he put his own office telephone number on the letters to prohibited people. Days after they went out, Loder’s phone began to ring.
Some callers had stories of childhood sexual assault that ended in mental breakdowns from which they were still recovering, Loder said. Some swore at him, berated him, and threatened him.
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Others who called had received letters addressed to their spouses, parents, and children after those people had long since died.
“By far the most heart-wrenching were several calls I received from the parent of someone who had died as a young adult,” Loder wrote in a follow up email after our initial interview. “The mothers were not angry or particularly upset by the notice – instead I felt what I was hearing were tales of anguish and sorrow, not over the receipt of a notice, but instead over having a child experience severe mental health or substance abuse issues.”
Loder said he felt that it was important to inform callers about the state’s “relief from disability” program, which provided disqualified individuals a way to appeal their status. The creation of such a program was a requirement for receiving federal grants.
Iowa was one of 30 states that ultimately received funding to improve records reporting to the background check system through the NICS Act Record Improvement Program between 2009 and 2016. The money spent, about $109 million, was far less than the $1.3 billion that was allocated. But Loder thinks it did some good in his state.
“The fascinating thing was that most of the calls were ultimately positive, even if they started out mad or confused,” he said. “I told people, ‘This may seem insulting and offensive, but at least now you know where you stand.’”