Guns and mental health: Deadly combination

Federal law asks question, but gun dealers have no access to health records

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Guns and mental health are common threads in deadly mass shootings, including Sunday's rampage at the Jacksonville Landing where a gunman killed two, wounded 10 others, then took his own life.

The federal background check to buy a firearm covers criminal history, drug use, citizenship and mental health. 

After 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Florida, high school, the Florida Legislature changed the law to allow a judge to take guns from someone who is mentally ill.

Court documents show the 24-year-old Landing gunman was treated for psychiatric issues at least twice when he was a teen and that he was prescribed anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication.

Those documented mental health issues were in Maryland, where David Katz legally purchased the two handguns he was carrying when he walked into the Good Luck Have Fun Game Bar and opened fire.

Federal gun laws prohibit a person from legally buying a firearm if they’ve ever been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or if a judge or a court declares that person mentally incompetent.

There’s a line on that federal application form where the buyer is asked to check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when asked about mental health history.

"It is the honor system," said Rod Sullivan, an attorney and former professor of constitutional law. There is no way to check whether or not the answer on the form is truthful or not, except with regard to felons. There is a database for felons. There is not a database with regard to commitment for mental illness."

Laws vary by state, and Maryland's laws are more restrictive than in Florida.

"It asks, 'Do you suffer from a mental disorder? Have you ever been involuntarily admitted for more than 30 days? Have you ever been found not criminally responsible for your actions?'" Sullivan said. "So you have to answer those three questions. If you (do not) answer those questions and truthfully, you can be charged with perjury, and that is a felony."

Also, under Maryland law, a person cannot buy more than one handgun within a 30-day period. Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said Monday that Katz bought the weapons he had with him at the Landing within the past two weeks.

How much access do gun dealers have to mental health information? Federal privacy rules keep medical and mental health history private.

Sullivan said there is no way for a licensed firearms dealer in Florida to check someone’s mental health history.

It’s a different story in Maryland, where state law there requires you to sign a waiver granting state police full access to your mental health records when buying a gun.

It’s unclear if this was done in Katz's case.

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