Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is attempting to fix this loophole by passing Senate Bill 2362.
A 2013 state law mandates that mental health hospitals, licensed under Title 33, report involuntary commitments within three business days to local law enforcement, who then report the person’s information to the FBI or Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
Those agencies then input the person’s information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which licensed gun dealers use to run background checks on anyone attempting to buy a gun.
However, not every person involuntarily committed for mental health treatment is listed in the NICS system.
For instance, if person was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric wing of a Tennessee acute care hospital, licensed under Title 68, they could easily walk into a gun store and purchase a firearm because their information hasn’t been reported to NICS.
“More than half of the hospitals that accepted involuntary commitments are acute care hospitals that have psychiatric units or wings,” Joe Burchfield, vice president of government affairs for the Tennessee Hospital Association, said.
Between March 2010 and December 2017, just 39,422 individuals in Tennessee were involuntarily committed to a Title 33 mental health facility and their name’s added to the NICS system, according to TBI data shared with the Johnson City Press.
During that same period, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County court clerks reported a total of 131 individuals to the NICS system for being involuntarily committed to a Title 33 licensed mental health facility.
“Right now, out of all 95 counties, about 60 or so have zero or one report out of the county, and we know that is not correct,” TBI senior policy adviser Jimmy Musice told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week.
Speaking to the Johnson City Press on Friday, Musice acknowledged the loophole in reporting involuntary commitments is concerning.
“We started to realize by looking at the data that this can’t be right. There can’t be this many people not entered,” Musice said.
Crowe’s bill, which passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously last week, would not just require all Title 68 acute care hospitals start reporting involuntary commitments to law enforcement, all Title 33 and Title 68 hospital licenses would be dependent on the reporting.
“We need some kind of enforcement mechanism to say that you are actually doing this, because looking at those numbers, we know that we're not getting the reports that we should,” Musice said.
According to the bill, the hospital must document its compliance with a record of communication with local law enforcement with respect to involuntary commitments. A hospital’s failure to comply with the reporting requirements will subject the hospital to civil penalties or other action against the hospital’s license.
“We must ensure our existing gun laws are properly enforced,” Crowe said. “The verification process established by this legislation will close a major gap in how we protect our schools and all Tennesseans.”
Crowe’s bill also expands the amount of information that will be reported to the NICS system, requiring not just the name and date of birth, but also the person’s race, sex and Social Security number.
Musice said about 73 percent of current NICS entries are just name and date of birth, which at times, makes it difficult on law enforcement in distinguishing between individuals.
It’s also a federal crime for prohibited gun purchasers to attempt to even attempt to purchase a gun, but Musice said law enforcement agencies usually use their own discretion when charging someone for making an attempt.
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, has introduced a bill to enhance the front-end of the NICS system by requiring the TBI to notify the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services within one day of receiving a notice that someone who has been adjudicated as mentally defective or judicially committed to a mental institution is attempting to purchase a firearm.
A 2015 state law, introduced by Haile, does establish procedures for an individual prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons to petition a court for those rights back.
Between 1998 and 2017, the TBI has blocked 254,637, or 3.82 percent of 6.14 million attempted firearm purchases in Tennessee. Sometimes referred to as the “gun show loophole,” any gun sold in Tennessee by a private seller requires no background check.
The House version of Crowe’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, will be heard Wednesday by the Health Subcommittee.