Sharing Promising Practices and Assessing Incentives Could Better Position Justice to Assist States in Providing Records for Background Checks

July 16, 2012

From 2004 to 2011, the total number of mental health records that states made available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) increased by approximately 800 percent—from about 126,000 to 1.2 million records—although a variety of challenges limited states' ability to share such records. This increase largely reflects the efforts of 12 states. However, almost half of all states increased the number of mental health records they made available by fewer than 100 over this same time period. Technological, legal, and other challenges limited the states' ability to share mental health records. To help address these challenges, the Department of Justice (DOJ) provides assistance to states, such as grants and training, which the 6 states GAO reviewed reported as helpful. DOJ has begun to have states share their promising practices at conferences, but has not distributed such practices nationally. By disseminating practices that states used to overcome barriers to sharing mental health records, DOJ could further assist states efforts.

The states' overall progress in making unlawful drug use records available to NICS is generally unknown because of how these records are maintained. The vast majority of records made available are criminal records—such as those containing arrests or convictions for possession of a controlled substance—which cannot readily be disaggregated from other records in the databases checked by NICS. Most states are not providing noncriminal records, such as those related to positive drug test results for persons on probation. On May 1, 2012, DOJ data showed that 30 states were not making any noncriminal records available. Four of the 6 states GAO reviewed raised concerns about providing records outside an official court decision. Two states also noted that they did not have centralized databases that would be needed to collect these records. DOJ has issued guidance for providing noncriminal records to NICS.

DOJ has not administered the reward and penalty provisions of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 because of limitations in state estimates of the number of records they possess that could be made available to NICS. DOJ officials were unsure if the estimates, as currently collected, could reach the level of precision needed to serve as the basis for implementing the provisions. The 6 states GAO reviewed had mixed views on the extent to which the reward and penalty provisions—if implemented as currently structured—would provide incentives for them to make more records available. DOJ had not obtained the states' views. Until DOJ establishes a basis for administering these provisions—which could include revising its current methodology for collecting estimates or developing a new basis—and determining the extent to which the current provisions provide incentives to states, the department cannot provide the incentives to states that were envisioned by the act.

Nineteen states have received federal certification of their programs that allow individuals with a precluding mental health adjudication or commitment to seek relief from the associated firearms prohibition. Having such a program is required to receive grants under the 2007 NICS act. Officials from 10 of the 16 states we contacted said that grant eligibility was a strong incentive for developing the program. Reductions in grant funding could affect incentives moving forward. 

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