As it stands now, anyone from Pennsylvania who has been involuntarily committed, or found to be mentally deficient - and thus ineligible to buy firearms - could travel to another state and buy a gun.
State Rep. Todd Stephens (R-151) of Horsham is looking to prevent what he calls a “loophole” pertaining to the inclusion of mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
“What I’m proposing is already the law in 17 other states,” Stephens said. “I’ve been working on this initiative for a year and a half urging the state police to add this data to the national database.”
Currently, the Pennsylvania State Police include mental health commitments in the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS), according to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper and Public Information Officer Adam Reed. Since 1998, PICS has been used to conduct background checks on individuals seeking to purchase a gun.
However, Reed said the state police do not upload that information to the national database because “NICS owns and controls the database.” Therefore, Reed said, it is up to NICS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives to “decide if they would accept the records.”
“We keep track of that information in our own state databases and are currently trying to include that into the national system,” Reed said.
In a Dec. 19, 2012 two-page letter written by Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Colonel Frank Noonan to Paul Wysopal, NICS section chief and sent to B. Todd Jones, ATF director and Robert Mueller, FBI director, Noonan said the state police had been waiting since June 2011 for a determination as to whether Pennsylvania mental health commitments prohibit individuals from possessing firearms under federal law. Noonan, in the letter, said a Pennsylvania resident, who in October 2012 was denied a firearm, attempted to buy a weapon in West Virginia.
“A NICS background check revealed Pennsylvania’s previous denial,” Noonan’s letter states, adding that he believed the purchaser was denied the gun purchase. On Nov. 9, in light of the incident, Noonan said he received an email from a NICS representative with a legal opinion that Pennsylvania involuntary mental health commitments prohibit people from possessing firearms under federal law.
As a result of that, Noonan said the Pennsylvania State Police would begin forwarding all mental health records to NICS no later than Jan. 15 for inclusion in the national database. In addition, the state police would coordinate with NICS to “forward all future mental health records to NICS on a daily basis” according to the letter.
“I’m glad the state police have finally taken the necessary steps to include this information in the national database following the announcement of my legislation," Stephens said. "I will still seek to make this policy the law in Pennsylvania, as it is in 17 other states, so we can be sure those who have been involuntarily committed in Pennsylvania cannot obtain firearms in other states."
Stephens said he had hoped that the information could be added to the national database without the need for new legislation. But, after 18 months of delays and red tape, Stephens said he had intended to introduce the bill on Jan. 14, on his first day back to Harrisburg.
“This is something that the governor, through the state police, could implement immediately,” Stephens said. “They can move forward without my legislation. They can go ahead and do it tomorrow if they want.”
Stephens said Governor Corbett’s office said they were “looking at the issue closely” and would get back to him. If the impending bill - which Stephens said has already garnered support for co-sponsorship - moves forward, it’s his hope that it will pave the way for widespread support.
“It ought to be a national initiative,” Stephens said, adding that he’s spoken with representatives from Bucks County Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick’s office. “I hope that we can get it done in Pennsylvania. The rest of the states across the country will follow suit.”
Fitzpatrick's Chief of Staff, Athan Koutsiouroumbas said the eighth district legislator is "supportive" of Stephens' initiative and intends to introduce "companion federal legislation" in a few weeks.
While Stephens said the sharing of mental health records is an important initiative, Stephens said it is in no way the only “solution” for help in curbing gun violence, particularly in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“To me this was low-hanging fruit that’s a no-brainer,” Stephens said. “To help keep guns out of the hands of people who aren’t supposed to have them.”
Last session, Stephens sponsored . However, the bill did not come up for vote before the end of session.
“I’ve got to start all over with that,” Stephens said.
And with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting fresh on everyone’s mind, Stephens suggested that other gun legislation may move slower, rather than quicker.
“When you have a serious issue with some broad concerns, there is a sense of moving a little bit more deliberately,” Stephens said. “I think we have to have a comprehensive review of the way we handle access to firearms. I don’t think there’s any one answer.”