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Patrick Springer, Published January 17 2013

North Dakota lags in reporting mental health cases to fed gun dealers database

FARGO – North Dakota ranked near the bottom in an evaluation of how well states are doing at matching mental health records with a federal database used for background checks by gun dealers.

North Dakota had provided one mental health record to the National Instant Check System, a database used for background checks, and no substance abuse files, according to a report by the advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

The report, “Fatal Gaps: How Missing Records in the Federal Background Check System Put Guns in the Hands of Killers,” compiled information for all 50 states as of October 2011.

North Dakota, which ranked 42nd in the report, has received federal grants totaling almost $300,000 to establish an electronic records system to link mental health orders with the background check database.

By comparison, Minnesota was ranked 18th in the report, with a rate of 74.7 mental health records submitted per 100,000 residents. As of October 2011, Minnesota had submitted 3,960 mental health records and 556 records involving substance abuse to the background check system, according to the report.

The report said Minnesota had made “great improvement since August 2010, when the state had submitted zero.”

North Dakota’s new system is on track to be ready before a June rollout deadline, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office said Thursday.

Until that system is in use, however, there is no way to track the number of mental health records made available to the background check system statewide in North Dakota, officials said Thursday.

“We haven’t been counting them or tacking them,” said Sally Holewa, North Dakota state court administrator.

Under the new system, the North Dakota Court Administrator’s Office is responsible for compiling any orders by judges finding a person a danger to self or others because of mental illness.

The number of such orders is not compiled, although judges throughout the state last year issued 1,460 orders involving mental competency, including 315 in Cass County.

That number, however, includes people found incompetent and in need of guardians for a variety of reasons, including dementia or head injuries, Holewa said.

Before a law was passed in 2011, she said, some records could not be disclosed because of patient confidentiality. The law provides for release of “nonclinical” information, such as a court order.

In the aftermath of the shootings of 20 school children in Newtown, Conn., and earlier shooting sprees, advocates including President Barack Obama have called for better background checks, including mental health records.

Susan Helgeland, executive director of Mental Health America in North Dakota, said she supports supplying the federal database with court records of people with mental illness who were found by a judge to be a danger.

“As a mental health advocate, I have no problem with that,” she said Thursday.

“The percentage of those folks is very, very small,” she added. “The people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim than the cause.”

Studies have suggested than less than 1 percent of people who are mentally ill are violent, Helgeland said.

A study last July by the General Accountability Office found that the increase in mental health records that states have made available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NCIS, increased by about 800 percent from 2004 to 2011, from 126,000 to 1.2 million records.

Most of that increase, the study found, reflected the efforts of a dozen states.

“Technological, legal, and other challenges limited the states’ ability to share mental health records,” the GAO study said.

North Dakota is one of about 14 states that received grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the sharing of mental health records with the background check system.

The 2011 law to enable the system also provides an appeal procedure for those who were denied a firearms permit for a “mental disability.” North Dakota is one of 19 states that allow for gun rights restoration.

All such appeals are supposed to be filed with the Burleigh County District Court in Bismarck. So far, Holewa said, no such appeals have been filed.

The Justice Department grants to convert paper records to electronic records for the background check system were made to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office.

Liz Brocker, a spokeswoman for the office, would not comment about the state’s progress, except to say that a June deadline will be met, and that the state is meeting its obligations under the law.

“We are in full compliance with state and federal law,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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