TRENTON — The New Jersey Judiciary is making significant progress in its efforts to provide mental health records to law enforcement about people disqualified from obtaining firearms.
Last week, the Judiciary announced it had submitted nearly 413,000 records to the New Jersey State Police to forward to federal authorities to include in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), used by law enforcement across the country to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers.
That’s a marked improvement over the 15 records the state had submitted as of October 2011, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control advocacy group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The records gap was cited by the group as a significant problem after it was revealed that a Virginia judge had declared Seung Hui Cho mentally ill two years before he shot and killed 32 people during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
Advocates credit much of New Jersey’s improved reporting with a 2010 law clarifying that disclosure of mental health records does not violate privacy laws.
New Jersey also received just over $3.6 million in federal grants to develop an electronic database and tracking system for cases involving mentally ill individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others.
Known as the Civil Commitment Automated Tracking System, the database includes more than 623,000 cases from all 21 counties dating back to 1975.
The New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts started developing the system in 2010 and began submitting digital records to the state police in April this year, officials said.
So far, about 200 would-be gun buyers have been flagged across the country based on New Jersey data submissions, state officials said.
“I am proud of the work our staff has done to build the database and backload relevant case information so the New Jersey State Police can share the information with law enforcement agencies,” New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in a statement. “This database will help promote public safety not only in New Jersey, but in every state.”
The 413,000 records submitted by New Jersey so far are exclusively involuntary commitments in which a judge has found mentally ill individuals to be a danger to themselves or others. Information about thousands of individuals who voluntarily seek admission to mental health treatment facilities also will be submitted for inclusion on the NICS using the existing infrastructure at no additional cost.
Legislation mandating the state to turn over all records of involuntary and voluntary commitments was signed into law earlier this month by Republican Gov. Chris Christie after it received broad bipartisan support in the state Senate and Assembly.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-6th of Cherry Hill, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, were among the prime sponsors of the mental health reporting bill. Both described it as a critical component to improving gun safety.
“A crucial mental health reporting failure is what allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to purchase weapons despite being adjudicated mentally ill,” Lampitt had said after the Assembly voted 68-10 to approve the measure. “The NICS relies on states to submit this information. If states fail to do so, the database will have incomplete or inaccurate records, allowing some individuals to purchase guns who should be prohibited.”