Professor publishes national firearms study in prestigious journal

October 27, 2023 · By David Sandler
Centennial Fountain on the Seattle University campus
Photo by Chris Joseph Kalinko

Lead author Deirdre Bowen’s JAMA article examines state-by-state reporting variations to a federal background database used to limit firearms purchases by persons with mental illness.

Laws around reporting individuals to a federal background check database vary significantly by state, which may impact gun deaths, including suicides, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – Internal Medicine.

“This finding matters because there is broad agreement that those with certain mental health challenges should not be able to easily access firearms. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is only as good as the information that each state submits,” Bowen said. “What this means is that a tool designed specifically to prevent homicides and suicides could be incredibly effective if we could align each state’s reporting laws.”

“When information is provided, it absolutely saves lives,” she added.

Bowen, who is also director of the law school’s Family Law Center, worked with a team of doctors, public health professionals, and law students over a series of months to research and analyze laws in all 50 U.S. states that prohibit individuals with mental illness from accessing firearms.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created NICS to prevent individuals who have experienced certain mental health incidents from gaining access to guns. Federally licensed firearm dealers must submit prospective buyers’ names to the system and obtain authorization before they can complete gun purchases.

Because federal law cannot mandate that states participate in this system, or delineate what data should be reported, each state is responsible for setting its own reporting guidelines. As a result, tremendous variation exists in information that is reported. Some states report little, if any, information, while others have instituted comprehensive guidelines.

Bowen and her co-authors decided to undertake the study after hearing from doctors and public health professionals who were unsure when or if or where they should report patients’ mental health information.

“This lack of knowledge led directly to the question of what the laws say in each of the 50 states,” she said. “Our team hopes that this information will inspire lawmakers across the country to collaborate and educate themselves on the inconsistencies that we have identified and reach a consensus on the most useful information to provide.”

Bowen cautions, however, that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be crime victims than perpetrators. “The purpose of this study is not to create or reinforce existing stereotypes. It is not the case that anyone with a mental health challenge is a threat. But there are a small number of cases where warning signs exist, and those should be shared so that needless deaths can be prevented,” she said.

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