The week before Christmas, Congress approved its first major gun control measure since 1994, thirteen years ago, and sent it to the president for his signature. The bill, purportedly prompted by the shooting deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech University in April, seeks to clarify what mental health records will be included in background checks run on those who would purchase a gun. It also provides funding to improve the background check database, and provides for fiscal rewards or punishments for state compliance or lack thereof.

The passage of this new measure suggests that, in the past, gun laws did not address questions of mental health. But under existing legislation from 1968, people barred from buying guns included convicted criminals who spent a year in prison, drug addicts, illegal aliens, and those found by a court to be mentally disabled.

Proponents of the new bill claim, however, that privacy laws and some fiscal restraints are responsible for occassional "failures" of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

To address those perceived "failures," the new bill:
  • Requires states to share mental health information with the FBI and DHS;
  • Determines which mental health records should be reported and shared;
  • Provides funds to improve the NICS;
  • Provides $375 million per year for five years for states and courts to improve processing of mental health information;
  • Penalizes states who do not comply with loss of federal crime-fighting funds;
  • Rewards states who comply with financial incentives.
Under the new bill a person found to be mentally ill would have the chance to show they are not a danger to public safety in the courts and they would have recourse to an appeal in the case.

The bill does allow for thousands of people with allegations of mental illness on their records — some 80,000 veterans included— to petition for the restoration of their gun-ownership rights. But it seems to put pressure on gun shops and owners at the point of sale; it is they who have to check the database and make sure they are interpreting it correctly.

The legislation was supported by the National Rifle Association but not by many of its rank and file members Officially the NRA said, "This would ensure that purely medical records are never used in NICS. Gun ownership rights would only be lost as a result of a finding that the person is a danger to themselves or others, or lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs."

But how can they be so sure? What are the specifics concerning the determination of those labeled "mentally ill" by the courts or other "similar body." Certainly, the potential and even probability exists here for abuse. There are bound to be some who are falsely labeled, either by accident or by design when using a broadly based or too narrow a definition of “mentally ill” by the courts or other "similar body." From the text of the bill ( it seems not only a court but a "board, commission, or other lawful authority" can make the determination of whether a person lacks the mental capacity to manage his own affairs. Furthermore, even those who are guilty of a misdemeanor shall be entered into the NICS system, an unsettling problem given that even traffic tickets can be misdemeanors and even felonies in some states these days.