Connecticut lawmakers have responded to the Newtown school shootings with tough gun safety legislation, and the state Judicial Branch is responding with two new databases designed to stop people with mental health problems from gaining access to firearms.
The goal is for law enforcement personnel — local, state and federal — to be able to quickly assess mental health histories when determining whether a person should be permitted to buy a gun or obtain a permit to carry one. This sort of information can already be obtained from the FBI. But the new databases should make the process quicker and the information available more complete.
One of those databases is being compiled by the Office of the Probate Court Administrator, which is part of the Judicial Branch. The Mental Health Adjudication Repository will be up and running this summer. It will record the names of people who have had their right to possess firearms terminated by court orders. The data collected will look back 14 years, to make sure people who have been found mentally incompetent don’t slip through the cracks.
"The goal of the project is to improve the completeness, automation and, most importantly, the transmission of mental health and court records used by federal and state law enforcement authorities when determining firearms permit eligibility," said Anne C. McKinney, a retired probate judge who is supervising the database creation by IT workers. "The new electronic database will provide more accurate and timely data to support law enforcement efforts."
For the second project, the Judicial Branch is compiling data on all Connecticut residents who have had firearms seized by police because they were reported to be a danger to themselves or others. It will take several months to complete the project.
Chris Duryea, a research attorney for the Judicial Branch, said his office is currently building that database to keep track of gun seizures. Like the Mental Health Adjudication Repository, the gun seizure database will replace an old paper-based system and record an estimated 50 gun seizures by police each year.
The much larger Probate and Superior Court database is being funded through a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department and will initially include records from more than 60,000 probate and criminal court cases.
Most legal decisions about the status of someone’s mental health occur in probate court, such as when someone is committed to a facility for mental health treatment or when a guardian has been appointed. And so the probate court system is leading the efforts to build the database. But the Superior Courts are also participating by providing the names and court records of individuals who have been found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.
When judges in either court system make rulings on mental health incompetency, clerks will immediately use a desk-top scanner to make the record part of the database. The FBI will have instant access to the database and its updates.
Together, the databases will allow law enforcement personnel at all levels to quickly assess mental health histories of potential gun buyers or firearms permit holders, said Vincent J. Russo, the manager of communications and intergovernmental relations for the Office of the Probate Court Administrator.
"For the past several years, the probate court [system] has been notifying the FBI when someone is found mentally incompetent," Russo said. Federal law requires state courts to supply that information within 72 hours, but there were sometimes delays because of human error. Currently, court clerks fax the information to the FBI. "Under the new system, we’re creating a secure and confidential database that will be fully automated," Russo said.
Paul J. Knierim, Connecticut’s probate court administrator, said the new database will be ready in August, less than a year after the Newtown school shootings. But Knierim said the event had nothing to do with this latest initiative. "Connecticut is way ahead of the other states on this issue," Knierim said. "We’ve put in place this database, to be as error proof as it can possibly be, as well as cost-efficient."
Attorneys who represent gun owners have already started responding to court policies and new bans on certain types of semi-automatic guns and ammunition clips. Rachel Baird, a Torrington solo, has said in the past that the increased use of databases by state officials could lead to more gun permits being denied.