Sheriff: Small Database Limits Effectiveness Of Background Checks For Gun Buys

Jan 10, 2013
Originally published on January 10, 2013 6:26 pm
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In a statement today, the National Rifle Association declared disappointment in the meeting with Vice President Biden. The NRA said, quote, "this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners." Earlier in the day, I spoke with Sheriff Richard Stanek of Hennepin County, Minnesota. He's part of a group of law enforcement officials who met with the vice president about gun violence after the Newtown massacre. And he also emphasized the issue of the background checks that we just heard about in Ari Shapiro's report.

SHERIFF RICHARD STANEK: We don't think you can discuss gun control unless you also deal with the issue of untreated severe mental health issues, the federal databases, like NICs, the National Instant Criminal Background Check, and how only 12 states participate in that nationwide. And so what should be 100 million records in that database turn out to be very few.

CORNISH: When it comes to the database, I mean, right now, how useful is it to you, if at all?

STANEK: You know, the federal NICS database is not of much use to us right now. And the reason being is simple. Two things. One, felony convictions, that would be crimes prohibitive from owning a firearm - rape, robbery, even murder, aggravated assault, domestic violence - many of those convictions never end up in that federal database, but that's what law enforcement relies on before we grant these permits through the NICS system.

Secondly is mental health. What we're finding is that only 12 states on a regular basis, maybe up to 27 of 28 states on occasion, contribute their mental health records to the federal NICS database.

CORNISH: But what could the administration do, what would you call on them to do to actually remedy this problem of states and reporting and beefing up the database?

STANEK: Well, we think that they have the bully pulpit and that they could encourage states if not more aggressively to contribute to the NICS system.

CORNISH: Now, what do you say to these criticisms that none of these things would really have, say, prevented a massacre like what was seen at Newtown, Connecticut. I mean, in that example you had a shooter who had access to guns from a family member, a family member who wouldn't have had any kind of record and the shooter themselves didn't have any kind of record.

STANEK: Well, you're absolutely right. One of the things we talked about the vice president with was Secretary Napolitano from the Department of Homeland Security gave us a spreadsheet of the last nine mass shootings across the country. Eight of those nine shooters all had some form of mental illness...

CORNISH: But not involuntary commitments. I mean not, you know, not something that would have popped up.

STANEK: Well, and that's one - I mean, that's one of the gaping holes in this, but we still want to be able to check. And, you know, we're looking for a comprehensive system that works across the board. Mental health commitments, whether through the courts or voluntary, I think the American public thinks that law enforcement, when they do these background checks, have access to it, and the simple fact of the matter is we do not.

CORNISH: I'd also like to talk about some of the other gun control policies that are on the table. Certainly this idea of a new assault weapons ban. Where is the Major County Sheriffs on those issues?

STANEK: You know, previously in 2004, the Major County Sheriffs, and I believe National Sheriffs Association, the sheriffs in this country, supported that assault weapons ban. Now they're moving forward. We haven't seen a specific proposal on the table. We've heard a lot of rhetoric back and forth through the news.

The vice president was very clear that he's going to deliver his recommendations back to the president. We're waiting to see what that looks like. We told him America's sheriffs want to work with him, and be at the table and figure out something that is a comprehensive policy across the board.

CORNISH: Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek is part of a group of law enforcement officials who have met with Vice President Biden about the issue of gun violence.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Richard Stanek.

STANEK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.