Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. To examine these volatile issues, earlier this year, the I-Team launched an ongoing project called Guns of Nevada. At the center of each gun massacre is a story of the holes in the mental health system. Nevada ranks near the bottom when it comes to mental health services. You will find extensive information in The Mental Health Debate.
LAS VEGAS -- Recent mass shootings have highlighted holes in the mental health system nationwide and in Nevada. Of particular concern, is the mechanism, or lack thereof to prevent those with a mental illness from buying a gun.
Nevada has laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying a gun. The trouble is they apply to such a narrow population -- only the sickest of the sick -- that some fear they may have missed their mark.
The arrest of state Assemblyman Steven Brooks in January of this year with a loaded gun in his car and his sites allegedly set on a fellow lawmaker began a series of events that would cause many to question who may legally have a firearm.
Brooks' erratic behavior prompted a psychiatric evaluation. But under Nevada law only those who are involuntarily committed or deemed mentally ill by a court are prohibited from possessing a gun. Brooks did not fit the definition.
"The purpose of this panel is to hear from the professionals involved in the issue of access to firearms for those who suffer from mental illness," said Nevada Senator Justin Jones, who represents Clark County.
State Senators Jones and Ben Kieckhefer want to expand the mental health information reported to the National Instant Background Check System, or NICS.
Licensed gun dealers use NICS to determine whether a potential buyer may legally purchase a gun.
"I think many are very concerned that you could have a circumstance where someone is civilly committed, is in a facility, but then is released within a few days, and can go to a gun store right now and purchase a firearm," Jones said.
The civil commitment process begins with a 72-hour hold, often in an emergency room for evaluation, observation and treatment. If during that time, a doctor deems the patient a risk to himself or others, a petition for review is filed with the court.
The vast majority of those petitions are dismissed because the patient stabilizes and is released before the hearing. In 2012, Nevada doctors filed more than 2,000 petitions, yet only 237 patients were involuntarily committed.
"The way that's happening doesn't trigger this entry into the background check system for firearms purchases and I think that's a disconnect between the intent of the law and what people expect," said Sen. Kieckhefer of Washoe County.
He proposes to include those petitions in the NICS system, along with a mechanism to restore gun rights after three years. To ensure the information is transmitted to NICS quickly, Jones has a bill to require reporting within five days. Currently, civil commitments by statute take at least 45 days to enter the system.
"There are a small sub category of those who suffer from mental illness who are a danger to others and those are the very narrow subset of individuals that we're trying to keep guns out of the hands of," Jones said.
Late last month, Brooks attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy a rifle from a sporting goods store in northern Nevada. Sources tell the I-Team, a clerk recognized him. At the time, Brooks did not qualify as a prohibited person by virtue of his criminal history or his mental health. It seems likely the ban was due, in part, to his notoriety. The state refuses to say.
Another hole in the system relates to the state's ability to share NICS information with law enforcement. For example, if a police officer wants to check the mental health history of a suspect, NICS, by law, cannot share it. That issue is currently being discussed and there may be a proposal to address that in the next few days.
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