Mentally ill people who pose a risk to society or themselves are legally prohibited from owning guns under federal law, but Maine for years has been unable to add the names of such people to the national background database.
The problem is that case records in Maine’s court system exist only on paper, and gathering those records is a time-consuming process.
The Maine Legislature six years ago passed a law to address the problem, but nothing has been done because neither the state nor the federal government has provided the court system with any additional money.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley plans to fix the problem, despite the lack of funding.
Starting this spring, the staff at Maine’s 38 courts will begin collecting those names and passing them on to the Maine Department of Public Safety, which will then hand them over to the FBI, which manages the national database.
While there is not enough staff to tackle the backlog of names, court staff will file the paperwork from all new cases to the database as the cases proceed through the court system, Saufley said in an interview Friday.
The court system will be able to reduce the backlog when its records are eventually digitized, according to Saufley.
She decided to move forward on the issue last spring, hiring Anne Jordan, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, to work on number of procedural issues facing the court system, including this one.
Saufley made this decision long before the shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where a mentally disturbed 20-year-old man killed his mother at home, and then 20 children and six educators at the school, before taking his own life. The “horrible” incident affirmed the importance of taking steps to protect the public, Saufley said.
“I don’t think the tragedy there has changed our focus, but it does have us talking with various stakeholders who are also interested in improving safety,” she said.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he expects there will strong, bipartisan support for Saufley’s decision.
“I applaud what the chief justice is doing,” he said, adding that it’s another example of the Legislature asking the judiciary to take on a task without providing additional money.
People on both sides of the gun control debate agree that the current law needs to be enforced, and this is a welcome step forward, said Leslie Manning, president of the board of the Maine Council of Churches and former regional coordinator for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“It’s common ground we can build on,” she said.
Nobody knows how many backlogged cases there are in Maine, although the number of cases in which people are committed to mental institutions on an emergency basis prior to a court hearing is less than 1,000 a year, Jordan said. Committing somone to a mental institution, except for short-term emergencies, requires a court hearing in which the person has the right to a court-appointed attorney.
To address the backlog, and also to improve efficiency and better serve the public, Saufley said, the court system needs to digitize its records. Currently, all criminal and civil case records are on paper only. Maine lags behind all New England states in moving to a digital record-keeping system for its courts.
Digitizing records would cost $10 million to $15 million, Saufley said. She is asking Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature this session to allocate $350,000 to help the court system create a plan for digitizing its records.
Federal law prohibits possession of a firearm or ammunition by any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or involuntarily “committed to any mental institution.”
No federal law, however, requires states to report the identities of these individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, which the FBI uses to perform background checks prior to firearm sales.
In 2007, Congress passed a law that allocated more than $1 billion to help states transmit mental health date to the FBI, but because of lobbying by the National Rifle Association, the law was written in such a way that only 18 states qualified for funding, said Owen Greenspan, director of law and policy at the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. Congress over the years has drastically cut back on funding for the program, he said.
Many states other than Maine have also struggled with this issue. From 2004 to 2011, nearly half the states have made little or no progress sending mental-health records to the FBI, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report. Maine was among the states identified as making no progress.
Because the Maine law passed in 2007 differs somewhat from the federal law, Maine, like most states, did not qualify for federal funds, Jordan said.
Under Maine law, for example, only people who are committed to a mental institution through a judicial process can lose the right to own a gun. The federal law does not require a judicial ruling.
To date, Maine has not provided the FBI with any names of people who have been involuntarily committed.
It has provided the names of people in two related categories: those found not criminally responsible for a crime by reason of insanity, and those found not mentally competent to stand trial. The two groups represent a relatively small number of individuals.
Maine law prohibits the state from passing on personal information, such as a mental illness or other diagnosis. It also provides an appeal process for those who lose their right to own a gun and who subsequently regain their mental health.