After facing legal and technical challenges for more than two years, the Pennsylvania State Police this week began transmitting hundreds of thousands of mental health records to a federal database used to conduct background checks for potential gun buyers.
On Tuesday, 643,167 mental health records were sent to the FBI-run National Instant Check System (NICS), according to the state police. The records represent people who are prohibited from buying guns because of involuntary mental health commitments.
"It's been an objective of ours for close to two years, so I think it's an important accomplishment that these records were able to be uploaded to NICS," said Lt. Col. Scott Snyder, deputy commissioner for the state police. The state police are working to fix a program that will upload the records automatically as they're created.
Strengthening the national database and universal background checks have been pillars of President Barack Obama's gun control agenda. On Wednesday, when he unfurled a massive gun control package, some executive orders were intended to make it easier for states to transmit mental health records to NICS.
Despite the state's achieving that goal, a disagreement between the state police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over interpretation of federal gun law throws into question how the records will be used. At issue is the 302, the shortest and most common type of involuntary mental health commitment.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the ATF said the bureau was still reviewing whether a 302 should preclude someone under federal law from buying a gun.
"ATF is reviewing whether Pennsylvania's 302 commitment is a federal prohibition under" federal statute, she said in an email. "There is no date for when the review will be completed."
Despite the fact it remains unclear whether a 302 would bar someone under federal law from buying a gun, state police submitted all of their records -- including 302s -- to the national database. About 70 to 75 percent of the records submitted are 302s.
Col. Snyder said state police are working under the assumption that the ATF has ruled 302s preclude gun ownership, contrary to what ATF has told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He said state police received an email from the NICS in November with an attached ATF opinion affirming that view.
"The opinion clearly states that ATF agrees with [state police] that all involuntary mental health commitments under Pennsylvania law, including  commitments, prohibit individuals from possessing firearms under" the federal statute, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan wrote in a letter to NICS.
Six days later, a state police lieutenant received a call from NICS "stating the issue had not been resolved and that ATF would provide further guidance," he wrote.
Col. Snyder said because they've received no further communication from ATF, they based their decision to transmit records on the opinion they received in the email. He said state police have never had any direct communication with ATF, a claim the bureau denies.
Despite the confusion, Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for NICS, said states can make their own determination as to what is qualifying. Pennsylvania's records had been accepted.
Gun control advocates across the state applauded the state police's efforts.
Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, the Pennsylvania chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said it was an "important step" in helping ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of those who could use them illegally.
For CeaseFirePA, encouraging the state to submit its mental health records has long been a priority. Two weeks ago, in one of the many meetings convened by Vice President Joe Biden to discuss gun control, executive director Shira Goodman told him of the more than half-million mental health records that had not yet been submitted. She said she was "pleased" the problem was rectified.
"We need to make sure we have a really strong background check system," she said. "Legal and technical difficulties should never be the answer to why we aren't making people safer."
She pinned the delay in part on the ATF.
"Whether there's a budget problem, whether there's communications [problem], there needs to be some clarity," she said. "This is not rocket science.
"They can't make it hard for the state to comply. If Pennsylvania's experience [is] not unique, that needs to be fixed."
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 and on Twitter: @MoriahBee.