Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said last week that a meeting held with law enforcement and court professionals, legislators and mental health advocates is the first step in potential gun control reforms and treatment to those with mental illness.
“The starting point was yesterday, getting all those people in the room at the same time … and come to have a candid discussion,” Stanek said.
The group discussed actions that can be done now in Minnesota to improve public safety and public health, according to a press release from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
“Following the events of Newtown, Conn., the nation has been engaged in a very important conversation about extreme gun violence and the role of mental illness,” according to the sheriff’s office.
The discussion has focused on federal laws and policies, and actions in Minnesota can help.
“Gun control is being discussed in Minnesota, it’s being discussed in other states,” Stanek said.
The coalition meeting in St. Paul Jan. 23 included Stanek, Hennepin County Mental Health Court Judge Jay Quam, National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota Executive Director Sue Aberdholden, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Minnesota Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jim Franklin, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dave Pecchia as well as several legislators, and sheriffs from other counties.
Proposed reforms they discussed include to strengthen existing gun background check laws, provide greater access to mental health records for law enforcement, and address gaps in providing services and resources to Minnesota residents who live with untreated mental illness.
Sheriff Stanek said there are gaps in the Minnesota and federal systems to complete background checks of people purchasing a firearm.
Nationally, about 60 percent of the people who purchase a firearm do so through a gun store of federal firearm license dealer, Stanek said. “We want to get at the other 40 percent, those are the ones you don’t have to go through a background check,” he said.
One of the gaps in the system is the availability of records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension manages Minnesota’s NICS information. Nationwide, participation in the record system is voluntary.
NICS records are used to check the criminal convictions that may prevent an individual from approval of a permit to purchase a gun, Stanek said. “Only 25 percent of those crimes are in the database,” he said.
The reforms discussed last week include ensuring in Minnesota that all felony and drug convictions and mental health court orders and other records that would prevent gun ownership are sent to the BCA electronically within 24 hours and entered immediately into NICS, according to the sheriff’s office.
“The second piece of the background check is mental records,” Stanek said. “When the courts deem someone incompetent to stand trial, that information only goes into NICS if it’s done voluntarily,” he said.
For example, Stanek said the man responsible for the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Seung-Hui Cho, had a court-ordered mental health commitment but records are not voluntarily submitted to NICS in that state. Cho purchased two guns legally, Stanek said.
Reform should also start with access to treatment for mental illness. Stanek said Andrew Engeldinger, who shot and killed six people and injured two others before taking his own life at his employer Accent Signage Systems in September 2012, did not have court-ordered mental health treatment despite efforts by his family and friends.
Hennepin County Mental Health Court Judge Jay Quam said during the Jan. 23 meeting that improvements to how courts address cases with mentally ill people are needed. For example, he said, the process to help people with the most acute symptoms should be streamlined. As a judge, Quam considers petitions for mental health commitments following the determination that someone is incompetent to proceed in a criminal case.
Mental health records that are public, such as if an individual receives a court order for treatment, are not always available to law enforcement professionals when responding to 911 calls and performing background checks, according to the sheriff’s office.
Sue Abderholden, from NAMI, said she is thankful the sheriff’s office and law enforcement recognized the barriers in the state’s mental health system during the meeting.
Community-based services for people with mental illness need to be developed more, Abderholden said. “It’s not necessarily that we need more hospital beds,” she said. “People spend the majority of their time in the community.”
Also, most people with mental illness are not violent, Abderholden said. “For almost a quarter of the population, most people are not violent and it is hard for them to hear these things.”
Abderholden ensured access to mental health records would only be about an individual’s commitment to treatment, not their personal health care information.
There is also a barrier for people accessing mental health treatment as part of their insurance coverage, she said. “And people may not realize they’re ill. I think there are ways we can try to engage people and get training early. The training on crisis intervention for law enforcement is very helpful,” Abderholden said.
“NAMI and several other groups in Minnesota are working on bills to improve children’s mental health services,” she said. “Half the adults with mental health issues experience systems before the age of 14.”
There are also people who need mental health treatment but are in jail without access to those services.
“People languish in our jails awaiting treatment,” Stanek said. “Jail doesn’t treat the mentally ill. We are a jail, nothing more and nothing less.”
Placing people in jail into the correct mental health treatment is one of the reforms on the docket after last week’s discussion as well.
Mental health treatment bills from NAMI are proposed to the Legislature Monday, Feb. 4, Abderholden said. “We know what to do, we just have to fund it,” she said.
Contact Katy Zillmer at [email protected]