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HHS Eases Rules Regarding The Mentally Ill And Gun Background Checks


There has been a long debate in the United States over whether the mentally ill should be allowed to own guns. But in fact, for decades, federal law has banned gun ownership for a limited number of mentally ill people.

JOCELYN SAMUELS: The mental health prohibitor prevents people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions or who have been adjudged incapable of managing their own affairs or a danger to themselves or others from owning a gun.

GREENE: This is Jocelyn Samuels. She's the head of the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She has been trying to get states to report these severely mentally ill people to the national criminal background check system and marked as ineligible for gun ownership. State agencies have been cautious about doing that because they're worried it will violate patient-doctor privacy rights. But under a new federal rule, they do now have clear permission to provide that information.

SAMUELS: What we wanted to do was to clarify what entities could report and what information could be reported about the individuals. At the same time, we wanted to be very careful to narrowly tailor the rule so that it would not serve as a disincentive for anyone to seek mental health treatment.

GREENE: But you sound very worried about making sure not to create a disincentive for people to seek treatment. And already, I mean, we're hearing from some gun rights activists who have taken up a motto, see a shrink, lose your guns, basically suggesting if you go to a psychiatrist, they could very quickly take your guns away.

SAMUELS: I mean, I think that that message is incorrect. An individual doctor is not authorized under this new rule to disclose information about someone who seeks treatment from that provider.

GREENE: I'm just imagining a case where a doctor is treating a patient, and that doctor might be really convinced that this person could pose a threat. It sounds at this point that unless this patient fits a very specific definition that that doctor has very little that he or she can do to make sure that this person does not own a gun.

SAMUELS: It is correct that nothing in this rule would authorize that doctor to report that patient to the background check system. However, we have been very clear that nothing prevents that doctor in the exercise of his discretion from talking to that patient's family, talking to that patient's guardians, talking to law enforcement about concerns that the patient poses a threat to the safety of either himself or others.

GREENE: I think about some of the tragedies that Americans have watched, I mean, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and the theater in Aurora, Colo., which, you know, as many people read so much about, involved shooters who it seem suffer from some kind of mental illness. I could see some people hearing about this and they were sort of hoping that there would be something very aggressive in terms of making sure people with mental illnesses don't get access to guns.

SAMUELS: I reject the automatic correlation between mental illness and a propensity to violence. Each individual has to be treated as an individual. And that's why generalized stereotypes about people with mental illness are both unlawful and dangerous because they sweep in huge numbers of people without consideration of their individual circumstances. It is really important to push back against stereotypes that entire classes of people ought to be prohibited from the kinds of rights that people across the country are able to exercise.

GREENE: Jocelyn Samuels, thank you very much for coming by. We appreciate it.

SAMUELS: Thanks so much.

GREENE: She is head of the Civil Rights Office for the Department of Health and Human Services. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.