The Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday mandating mental health information be included in background checks for firearm purchases in Wisconsin.
The bill would bring Wisconsin into compliance with current federal law concerning handgun sales, as well as put Wisconsin in the company of many other states that have worked to monitor mental health histories and gun purchases in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
The federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires all potential handgun buyers to undergo background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NICS keeps track of individuals who are ineligible to buy firearms due to certain provisions, including past conviction of a crime, illegal alien status and previous involuntary commitment to a mental institution.
Wisconsin law does not require background checks through the NICS. Wisconsin handgun vendors must perform a criminal background check through the state Department of Justice that does not necessarily include information on court-ordered mental health treatment or involuntary commitment.
Some law enforcement groups see the passage of the bill as a positive step toward better gun control.
“Why would you want someone with a major mental deficiency to be in possession of a gun, who is not capable of making an intelligent decision with that firearm?” said Mike Buetow, vice president of the Milwaukee Police Association. “When you’re dealing with people who may be on or off a certain medication and have a gun, it makes it a bigger challenge for police officers.”
Others see the bill as furthering the stigma that mental illness and violence go hand in hand.
“A lot of people with mental illness have concerns about this kind of bill because it does seem to perpetuate that equivalence of mental illness with violence, which at the basic level isn’t there to the degree the public thinks it is,” said Shel Gross, director of public policy at Mental Health America in Wisconsin.
The bill would require courts to give information on court-ordered treatment or involuntary commitment that would make an individual ineligible to purchase handguns to the Department of Justice, only to be used during handgun purchase background checks.
Provisions for mental ineligibility include insanity pleas in criminal cases, persons found not guilty due to lack of mental responsibility and commitment for reasons such as substance abuse.
“There are a lot of things that could be done to make campuses safer, to keep dangerous people from running around with guns, but this was done more out of fear than out of any sound public policy basis,” said Buster Bachhuber, spokesperson for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Rifle Association.
Some groups also see the bill as an opportunity to protect the mentally ill from themselves. Gross said people with mental illness are more likely to kill themselves than those who are mentally sound.
“Mental illness is a risk factor for suicide, and getting weapons out the hands of these people can be quite beneficial to themselves, even if the risk of violence to others in the community isn’t necessarily elevated,” Gross said.