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In January, the Department of Health and Human Services released a draft of a new rule proposed by the Obama administration that could strengthen the system for background checks on gun sales. This rule would help ensure that the system can properly identify any person prohibited from possessing firearms because of severe mental illness. As a part of the process for executive orders to go into place, the Department of Health and Human Services must consider public comment — and that process is now underway. Public comments on this proposed rule to strengthen background checks on gun sales will be accepted through Monday, March 10th.

Under federal law, people become disqualified from purchasing a firearm when they are involuntarily committed to a mental institution or subject to similar procedures because of severe mental illness.  In order for the process to identify these people, however, states have to submit identifying information to the federal background check system.  Some states have been reluctant to submit this information, claiming that the federal privacy laws regarding personal medical information prevent this disclosure.  The proposed rule would make it clear that certain agencies can submit limited information to the background check system without violating federal privacy laws.

The proposed rule also includes strong protections for the privacy of the mentally ill.  More specifically, it clearly limits the disclosure that would be allowed in three ways:

  • Speaker:  Only entities with lawful authority to make decisions that cause individuals to become prohibited from possessing firearms, or that serve as repositories of this information for reporting purposes, would be permitted to disclose this information;
  • Message:  The disclosure would be restricted to identifying information (name, birthdate, etc.) and would not include medical records, or diagnostic or clinical information; and
  • Audience:  Entities would only be allowed to disclose this information to the federal database used for firearm purchaser background checks, or to a state agency for the purpose of reporting to that database.  The information would not be made public or disclosed to any other person.

The Obama administration, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services, should be commended for drafting the proposed rule, which strikes the proper balance between public safety and the privacy interests of the mentally ill. The Law Center supported the new rule to strengthen background checks by submitting a comment, stating that this proposed rule will remove ambiguity and help states submit the appropriate records into the background check system, which could prevent suicides and save countless lives from unnecessary gun violence.

However, the gun lobby has attacked this reasonable and responsible action, sending a large number of gun activists to object to this proposal. Show the administration that the public supports such important steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands by visiting the federal commenting portal today