TRENTON -- The names of hundreds of thousands of current and former New Jersey residents who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities have been added to an FBI database used to bar firearms purchases by people with criminal records or a history of mental illness.
New Jersey court officials said that they began forwarding digital records to the FBI earlier this year and that they expect to complete the program by the end of May.
The Civil Commitment Automated Tracking system has turned over identities of 280,000 people subject to involuntary civil commitment dating to 1975 in 16 of the state's 21 counties. The five remaining counties -- Atlantic, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth and Bergen -- likely will be added by the end of May.
Officials of the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts say they expect the total number of people whose names have been sent to the FBI will reach about 420,000.
"The program has already demonstrated its usefulness in promoting public safety," said Glenn A. Grant, a New Jersey appellate judge who is serving as acting director of the New Jersey court system. "More than 85 gun purchases were denied based on the records the court provided to the New Jersey State Police for referral to the federal registry.
The data collection began in 2010 and has been paid for with $2.7 million in federal grant money for staff to input paper records, as well as to transfer existing computer records to a state database. The program involves only involuntary commitments, cases in which people have been found by a judge to pose a danger to themselves or others because of mental illness. People who seek treatment on their own and ask to be placed in a psychiatric facility are not included in the registry.
The issue of access to firearms by people with psychiatric histories received intense focus in 2011 when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded and six people were killed at an event near Tucson, Ariz., by a gunman later found to be a paranoid schizophrenic, and again last year following the shootings of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., by a youth with a history of isolation and seemingly troubled behavior.
It is unlikely that Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, would have been flagged by the background check system, since he used weapons purchased by his mother and apparently never had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility.
But the shootings prompted intense discussion about how to reduce gun violence by restricting firearms sales, including restricting purchases by people suffering from psychiatric disorders.
The federal database dates to the early 1990s, when Congress passed the Brady Act, authorizing federal background checks for gun buyers for criminal histories and a five-day waiting period before a gun sale could be completed.
Following the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Congress passed legislation calling for instant background checks, and the FBI established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System at its information center in West Virginia.
The law also required that gun buyers be screened for mental health disorders, but those records were scattered in county courthouses around the country and hard to access. In 2007, following the massacre at Virginia Tech of 32 people by a student with a history of mental illness, Congress authorized grants to states to encourage creation of databases containing the names of people who had been involuntarily committed that could be integrated with the federal background check system.
The pace has been slow. At least 14 states still do not participate, and while New Jersey began gathering records of people adjudicated mentally ill in 2010, it had forwarded only 17 names to the FBI by the time of the Newtown killings last year.
Since then, according to Jack McCarthy, the state court system's chief technology officer, a flood of information has been forwarded to the federal government. Moreover, a system is in place now to automatically update the database as new information comes in.
McCarthy says the information is carefully screened and tested for accuracy to avoid misidentification.
People who have been barred from purchasing weapons because a background check revealed a previous mental health history can try to have the record expunged, Judge Grant said.
No such cases have emerged yet in New Jersey, but Grant said they likely would involve an appearance by the person seeking to purchase a weapon before the court that authorized the commitment in the first place. If a judge concludes that, based on the evidence, the person has recovered, authorities would be required to remove that person's name from the database, Grant said.
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