Privacy laws keep mental issues out of background checks

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The mother of the Oregon shooter says her son was struggling with mental health issues.

There have been examples before: In 2007, documentation that showed the Virginia Tech shooter had gone to see numerous counselors before committing the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. And it was the same with the Aurora Theater gunman, who also had a history of mental illness. He killed 12 people who just wanted to watch a movie.

You would think a background check would’ve been enough to stop the shooters from buying guns. But a background check doesn’t always show the “red flags”.

More than one million people a year buy a gun in Texas and get the required background check. Those checks search a person’s criminal history, but not always their mental health record. Those are protected by Federal privacy laws. In Texas, court ordered commitments or guardianships must be reported.

But according to Texas and federal law, information about a person’s emergency mental health detentions or warrants, protective custody orders or drug and alcohol rehab services cannot be made public for a background check.

“We’re not very good at identifying who is likely to be violent. It’s a very small number of people who have mental illness,” said  Dr. Lynda Frost from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

She says medical records are kept private to encourage people to get help. She believes any new laws with a more broad approach could do more harm than good. Statistically, though, you’re more likely to get in a car accident on your drive home from work than to meet a mentally ill, mass murderer.

“All of us struggle at times, so it get’s very tricky at times when we say – the Mentally Ill,” said Dr. Frost.

In a way, it’s the same argument the gun rights lobby makes, we should be wary of stigmatizing the many, to stop the few.

Dr. Frost points out– 61 percent of gun deaths in America come from suicide.  She says access to care is still the number one problem in mental health.

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