ST. PAUL — Minnesota law enforcement leaders warned not enough is being done to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and called on lawmakers Wednesday to take action to address the growing problem.
"Gun control alone is not going to solve the complex problem of guns and extreme violence. We have an access problem, and the severely mentally ill should never have access to guns," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said at a news conference.
A coalition of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and mental-health advocates joined Stanek in taking steps to improve the state's background check system and revamp how the criminal justice system handles individuals struggling with mental illness. This legislative push has the strong backing of Olmsted County Sheriff Dave Mueller.
"We would certainly like to do everything we can to make sure we have the ability to know about people's background and try to keep guns out of individuals' hands that may suffer from mental illness," he said.
Among the concerns are incomplete records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is relied upon by gun sellers to determine whether an individual is allowed to buy a gun. Some key information regarding felony and drug convictions, along with mental-health court orders, have not been entered. Stanek said they want to see this information submitted within 24 hours in electronic format to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension so it can be uploaded immediately to the background check system.
Law enforcement officers also want access to mental-health court records to prepare them for 911 calls and doing background checks. Other ideas include looking at streamlining the court system to make sure individuals with mental illnesses who are deemed incompetent to stand trial are not stuck in jail waiting for weeks or months to determine if they should be civilly committed. The Minnesota Sheriffs Association also backs re-examining the state's civil commitment law to determine if the standard should be lower. Also of concern is a lack of in-patient and out-patient psychiatric resources available to treat people struggling with mental illness.
That last component is of particular concern to Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. She emphasized the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. The real problem is a lack of access to treatment for people who need help.
"When you don't have your insurance or our public programs covering your treatment, who do you turn to? You turn to state and county funding, and in times of recessions and tough budget situations, those are the things that get cut," she said.
Abderholden said her organization does not support lowering the threshold for civil commitment at this time.
Local lawmakers interviewed agreed more should be done to shore up the state's criminal background database.
"There is a desire among gun owners as well to make sure we are sharing information about people who, because of mental health status, are not qualified under the law to own firearms," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
He said he is working on legislation to ensure key criminal and mental-health information is accessible for law enforcement officials. But in the wake of recent mass shootings, such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, he also wants to see state lawmakers pass legislation allowing teachers and others to carry concealed weapons in schools.
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, takes a different view. As chairwoman of the House Health and Human Policy Committee, she said it's clear that the state's mental health resources are underfunded and wants to take a look at the system. But just looking at the issue of mental illness is not enough to solve the issue of gun violence.
She also supports getting rid of loopholes that allow for private individuals to sell guns without background checks and outlawing certain weapons "that have no legitimate role in civil society."
She added, "We need to look at our mental health system. We also need to look at our gun policy. Not just one or the other."