Fugitives, mentally ill able to buy guns in Arizona under outdated records system
Published: June 26, 2013 at 10:29 am
Arizona’s system for tracking fugitives, accused felons and mentally ill people is rife with loopholes, creating the potential for hundreds of thousands of people who are banned from owning guns to buy them anyway.
Tony Coulson, a consultant working with a task force charged with improving the state’s reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, attributed most of the holes in the state’s reporting system to the lack of technology and the continued use of paper records.
People with arrest warrants, under indictment or mentally ill can buy guns because the state, lacking an adequate digital record-keeping system, doesn’t report them to the federal government’s criminal background check system, Coulson said.
And the holes are glaring. For instance, there are about 500,000 active arrest warrants in Arizona, but only about 30,000 are entered in the background check system, or NICS.
People under indictment or criminal complaint are also prohibited from owning a gun under federal law. But Arizona does not report those people, mostly because prosecutors aren’t set up to enter information into the various criminal databases from which NICS captures data. There were 33,072 indictments and criminal complaints filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in fiscal year 2012.
“If you are a federally prohibited possessor, you have a very good chance of purchasing a weapon in Arizona,” said Coulson, who was in charge of the Tucson office of the Drug Enforcement Administration before retiring in 2010.
The first attempt at fix will come from the Arizona Supreme Court, which is about to begin design of a repository of mental-health records for use in gun-purchase background checks and by police officers on the street.
Coulson and members of the court’s staff gave a presentation on the state’s reporting system Monday to the Arizona Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the court.
The mental-health repository, which the court plans to have in place by early 2014, will hold court orders for people who have been involuntarily committed, criminal defendants who have been found to be incompetent to stand trial, and mentally incapacitated people who are under guardianship.
Arizona reports people who have been involuntarily committed, or who are a danger to themselves or others. There are roughly 3,600 of them in NICS, but Coulson estimates that about 30,000 should be.
The state, however, doesn’t report people who have been declared incompetent to stand trial or under guardianship for mental incapacity.
Coulson said it is important to develop the repository first even though people under court order for mental issues make up a small portion of those banned from owning guns.
“People that have mental-health conditions are not predisposed to violence,” Coulson said. “They just happen to be the ones that kill a lot of people at one time.”
The task force works under the auspices of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, or ACJC, which got a federal grant in the wake of the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting in Tucson that left six dead and 13 wounded, including former U.S. Rep. Gabriel Giffords. Coulson said the shooting was a major reason the U.S. Department of Justice issued the grant to Arizona.
The shooter, Jared Loughner, was sentenced to life in prison and spared the death penalty because he suffered from schizophrenia.
Jerry Landau, director of government affairs for the Arizona Supreme Court, said the ACJC will take the lead in getting legislation passed to allow for the repository. Landau will write the proposed laws, which are in a preliminary stage and will be revised.
An early draft of the laws calls for the court to manage the repository and provide the Department of Public Safety, the agency in charge of reporting to NICS, with identifying information such as name, age, Social Security number, a court case number and the date of the court order.
Dave Byers, administrative director of the courts, said police on the task force brought up the idea of making the information available to them.
“A police officer stops somebody in a car with a weapon, their behavior is erratic, there is no way they can check to see if that person is declared incompetent or if there is a court-ordered treatment order,” Byers said.
Coulson said there are at least three people in Pima County who were charged with murder, but their cases were dismissed because they were declared incompetent to stand trial. With no criminal charges to hold someone, the person is set free.
“These folks are on the streets and are able to buy a weapon,” Coulson said.
Landau said he will also have to write new law to allow police access to the repository for the purposes of enforcing a court order, conducting an investigation or returning someone’s gun.
Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Liewer said the court’s staff is still figuring out the cost of the repository.
She said the court has received a $200,000 federal grant through ACJC to fund a study and creation of the repository.