Vincent J. Russo, manager of communications and intergovernmental relations for the Office of the Probate Court Administrator of Connecticut has issued an announcement that the Probate Courts “expect to complete work this summer on a new database for use by state and federal authorities in checking the mental health backgrounds of citizens who seek to buy or own firearms.”
The Mental Health Adjudication Repository (MHAR) will list those individuals who have had firearms eligibility rights terminated due to mental health adjudication in the Probate or Superior Courts, within the last 14 years. The Connecticut Probate Court website states that “When a Probate Court finds a person to be mentally incompetent, he or she may not buy, sell, own or possess a firearm, and his or her name is listed with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.”
Frequently the matters addressed in Probate Courts include administration and oversight of trusts and estate or the care and guardianship of children. However, Probate Courts commonly address social issues involving mental health, said Mr Russo, and the new system in place as of July will proved a good methodology of reporting and sharing that information in a timely and efficient manner.
The database will be made available to relevant state and federal agencies and automatically updated each day, Mr Russo said in his announcement. Those agencies will include the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP), the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Local and state police will access the information through the DESPP, said Mr Russo.
A mental health adjudication is a decree by the courts that a person is found to be mentally incompetent. In the Probate Courts, a civil commitment or involuntary conservatorship, in which a person is found unable to care for him or herself, may result in this finding. A finding for mental health adjudication can also occur when the Superior Court finds a person incompetent to stand trial or is found not guilty by reason of insanity, in criminal proceedings.
While the new system is timely to the 12/14 shootings in Sandy Hook, said Mr Russo, the project to improve and share record keeping on mental health adjudication has been underway for three years. Grants from the US Department of Justice, totaling approximately $4.9 million, allowed the project to undertake building the database and related initiatives. If funding allows, an additional six years of records beyond the 14 years will be reviewed.
According to Mr Russo, “Mental health adjudications account for the small fraction of the adjudications that lead to a [firearms] disqualification, but they are the most problematic for NICS reporting,” because many of these adjudications records are not easily available through the current criminal history systems used by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The new system will create an automated system where all cases on the mental health side of things go to one system accessible to the state and federal agencies, he said.
Since 1998, the courts have maintained records, but the information has not been in a format that could be share by different agencies and still maintain confidentiality. “Data-sharing has been difficult because of incompatible computer systems or outdated modules, and the exchange of information through facsimile and other paper records can be slow, redundant, and subject to human error,” stated Mr Russo in the informational notice. All new programming and coding, said Mr Russo, means that all agencies “are now on the same page,” and that secure servers mean communication between agencies is appropriately confidential.
“People weren’t aware this record keeping system even existed,” said Mr Russo. “[The new system] will make it less likely for people to commit crimes,” he said, noting that the new database will also be able to track people receiving mental health services at a hospital.
All individuals with a mental health adjudication, whether through Probate or Superior Courts, are not allowed to own or buy a firearm, under Federal law. However, since 2010, it has been possible for individuals with a mental health adjudication to petition to have eligibility to own or buy firearms reinstated. Mr Russo said he is unaware of any instances, though, where a person has petitioned for those rights to be reinstated. Very high standards are adhered to for reinstatement, two doctors must testify, and input from the Department of Public Safety is required, he said.
“In the best case scenario,” Mr Russo said, “there will be no opportunity for [someone who has been found by the courts to be mentally incompetent] to commit a crime, particularly with a firearms.”