Policy Systems

Guns, Mental Illness, and Background Checks.

To my knowledge, I’ve only had one “long-term” patient attempt suicide with a gun. [1. I have worked with other people who have tried to kill themselves with guns. They usually report that these attempts had occurred years ago. Other people told me that they owned guns, but had no desire to kill themselves in the time we worked together. Still others owned guns and were struggling with ideas of suicide. Thankfully, we were able to work through this together and these people chose life. Then there are people who own guns and want to kill themselves, but share neither detail with me. I don’t know who they are because I either (1) never meet them in the first place or (2) I never see them again.]

This Person Who Attempted Suicide with a Gun did not show up for an appointment one day. For reasons I could not explain, I had great concerns that This Person had attempted suicide. After leaving several phone messages, I got a phone call from This Person, who was in the hospital.

“I swallowed a bullet,” This Person said.


“I don’t know how it happened, but I swallowed a bullet.”

When I later spoke to This Person’s hospital physician, I learned that This Person had not swallowed a bullet. A bullet had gone through This Person’s chest wall, through a lung, and out the back.

I told This Person what I had learned.

“It was my friend’s gun,” This Person said. “I went over when no one was at home.”

The New York Times has a short article about “Why People With Mental Illness Are Able to Obtain Guns“. [2. While the title of this article, “Why People With Mental Illness Are Able to Obtain Guns”, is simply an accurate description of the piece, I still feel annoyed with it. I think my reaction is due to the pairing of “mental illness” and “guns”. There is no reference that most deaths from guns are due to suicide. Where are the articles that pair guns with other conditions? “Why People With Substance Use Disorders Are Able to Obtain Guns”? “Why People With Incurable, Painful Diseases Are Able to Obtain Guns”? “Why People in Financial Ruin Are Able to Obtain Guns”?] One reason offered is “Their Mental Health Records Are Not Accessible”. The author, unfortunately, does not provide much elaboration on this, which alarmed me. Just what records would the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System have access to? If it is accurate that about one in five Americans will experience any mental illness in a year, how much private health information will the FBI have access to?

The government released a document, “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)“, that clarifies some of this. The summary from the document notes:

Among the persons subject to the Federal mental health prohibitor established under the Gun Control Act of 1968 and implementing regulations issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) are individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution; found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity; or otherwise have been determined by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others or to lack the mental capacity to contract or manage their own affairs, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease. (emphasis mine)

Thus, three populations of people will have their “mental health records” accessible to the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System:

  1. people who have been hospitalized against their wills for psychiatric reasons
  2. people who are deemed by a court to be incompetent to stand trial, or the court ruled that they are not guilty by reason of insanity
  3. people who are deemed by a lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others, or are “gravely disabled” (unable to care for themselves)

The summary adds:

The disclosure is restricted to limited demographic and certain other information needed for NICS purposes. The rule specifically prohibits the disclosure of diagnostic or clinical information, from medical records or other sources, and any mental health information beyond the indication that the individual is subject to the Federal mental health prohibitor.

This offers partial relief, though I still have concerns:

  • What is the “limited demographic” information? Name? Age? Sex? Race?
  • What is the “certain other information”? Country of birth? Political party registration? Contacts with law enforcement in the past year? Religious affiliation?

This Person who “swallowed a bullet” was ultimately “involuntarily committed to a mental institution”. Under Washington State law, This Person lost the right to own a firearm because of the involuntary detention.

As such, I generally agree with the three populations described above in the “mental health prohibitor”. There is data that argues that people who own guns are more likely to complete suicide. There is also data that argues that people are more likely to complete suicide in the first few weeks after discharge from a psychiatric hospital. I would not want This Person to purchase a gun and attempt suicide again.

However, This Person used someone else’s gun in the suicide attempt. Neither Washington State law nor this new Federal rule has relevance.

I don’t know what the answer is.

Increasing the amount of data in background checks may help reduce suicides and homicides. The current implementation, however, may only increase stigma for people with mental health conditions. We want to increase the awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions. We don’t want to increase fear.

It does not appear that banning guns outright is possible. I am also not totally convinced that an outright firearm ban would result in less gun homicides due to some of the reasons listed here. Would a ban on guns decrease suicides? Maybe, as states with firearm registration and licensing regulations seem to have less suicides.

As I have noted elsewhere, a psychiatric diagnosis alone does not explain why people kill other people, whether with guns or other means. Yes, there are sociopaths who kill people, but they are extremely uncommon. Does the mental health of a society affect and shape the mental health of an individual? Does context matter?

If so, how can we as a society help change the context?