Fatal Gaps In Montana Background Check Laws

Jun 9, 2015

We're home from the whirlwind of the 64th legislative session. Thanks to rolling up our sleeves and committing to bipartisan work, there were huge wins for the people of the State of Montana: Medicaid expansion, the water compact, and campaign finance reform. I saw the passage of seven of my own bills. However, despite legislative victories, Montanans need to urgently pay attention to a bill that didn't pass. There is a dangerous gap in our laws: our state isn’t sending the required records of people suffering from serious and diagnosed dangerous mental illness to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) we use for gun purchases. This is contrary to federal law. We need to ensure that this system, created to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, is kept up to date and has the mental health records it needs to help stop preventable gun deaths and injuries.

In 2013, I received the “Hero Award” from the Montana Chapter of NAMI for my advocacy for individuals with mental illness. Despite my passion for the rights of these Montanans, for fifty years, federal law has prohibited people suffering from severe mental illness from owning guns—individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. But missing records in the national system mean that prohibited buyers can walk into a gun dealer, pass a background check, and purchase a firearm. When a person suffering from a mental health crisis gets a gun, we have a serious risk—and all Montanans are in danger.

A background check is the most effective way to stop a prohibited purchaser from arming himself—over 2 million sales have already been stopped. But that purchase won’t be blocked if a state fails to send its prohibiting records to the national system. Our state already sends in records for felons and spousal abusers, but we don’t send in our prohibiting mental health records. In fact, alarmingly, our state has submitted a total of 3 records to NICS since its inception. That means we’re allowing an untold number of dangerous people slip through the crack—even though they’re not legally allowed to possess guns in the first place.

Last summer, the legislature heard testimony from Peter Read, the father of a young woman who was shot and killed during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Prior to the shooting, the gunman was found by a court to be a danger to himself, a finding that legally prohibited him from possessing firearms. However, when he went to a gun dealer to purchase his guns, he passed a background check. He was able to walk out of the store armed because Virginia had failed to submit his prohibiting mental health record to NICS. The gunman went on to shoot and kill 32 students and educators and injure 17 others in the worst school shooting in American history.

Here in Montana, we have lived through too many of our own preventable tragedies. Catherine Woods was shot and killed in Miles City in 2008 by a former boyfriend who was able to buy his murder weapon even though he was prohibited from owning it. He had been committed to a mental hospital after attempting suicide—but because we have no law requiring records be sent to NICS, he passed a background check and bought a gun. He confronted Catherine, fired 14 shots, and killed her.

Unless we pass a new law requiring reporting, we stand to lose more Montanans to senseless violence. As it stands, we’re one of the 9 remaining states that do not have a record reporting law in place. And states as politically diverse as Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, Idaho, and Mississippi have recently taken action to require reporting. Last year Alaska and Hawaii both passed a reporting law without a single “no” vote. Republican and Democratic Governors alike are signing these life-saving bills into law.

These laws are simple and easy to implement, and they respect the rights of individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses by maintaining confidentiality and eventually giving them an ability to purchase guns again the in future. The time to act is now. I am working towards another effort next session and seeking co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including the support of our Attorney General and Governor. Please urge my colleagues in the legislature to support our mental health bill—and to take action and keep guns out of dangerous hands.

-Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill is a Democrat from Missoula serving in her third term of the Montana House of Representatives