Federal law prohibits the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing firearms. But South Dakotans who are involuntarily committed for being a danger to themselves or others dodge that law right now, because South Dakota doesn’t submit lists of the dangerous mentally ill to the federal background check system.
That’s on the verge of changing. On Tuesday morning, a Senate committee voted 5-2 for a bill to begin filing that mental illness information with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
The measure, House Bill 1229, would require mental health officials to notify the federal government if someone were involuntarily committed for being a danger to one’s self or others. Prosecutors would be required to tell NICS if someone were acquitted of a crime by reason of insanity, or declared unfit to stand trial.
HB1229 also sets up a process by which people who believe they are no longer mentally ill can ask South Dakota judges to restore their gun rights. Supporters say that bypasses a much more cumbersome process of appealing to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
South Dakota already reports other information to NICS, including when someone is convicted of a felony.
A similar measure was shot down last year. But with support this time from the National Rifle Association, it’s having better luck this year. If the South Dakota Senate approves the bill, it will head to Gov. Dennis Daugaard for a signature.
"To me it’s one of the reasonable, responsible responses we can make to all the issues of gun violence in our society today," said Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City.
But while the NRA and the National Shootings Sports Association backs the measure, a different gun group is fiercely opposing it as an attack on the Second Amendment. The National Association of Gun Rights and its South Dakota affiliate, South Dakota Gun Owners, have urged their members to contact lawmakers and lobby for a no vote.
Neither group testified on Tuesday before the Senate committee.
"I’ve been deluged with emails and I’m kind of surprised there’s no one here to oppose it," said Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell.
Several lawmakers found the law concerning.
Sen. Tim Begalka, R-Clear Lake, worried that it’s too hard to get off the NICS registry, even with the new system set forth in HB1229. He opposed granting more power to the federal government and worried that veterans could find themselves unable to buy guns because they seek treatment for PTSD.
"I don’t believe we have a problem in South Dakota," Begalka said. "We’ve gone years without this. I believe we’re ostracizing the mentally ill."
Sen. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre, said the rapid growth of mental illness diagnoses in recent decades makes him leery of barring gun purchases because of someone’s mental health.
Tieszen, though, said the law is narrow and wouldn’t apply to most people with mental health issues.
"If we have a veteran who comes home and is dangerously mentally ill and is a danger to themselves or their community, don’t we want them to not have easy access to firearms?" Tieszen said.