Jim Ragsdale


Instant background checks and easy Internet lookups suggest that we can know a person by sifting through his electronic past.

But what if important parts of the historical record are blotted out from view, and the story the records tell is incomplete or false?

That was the message of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek to the Legislature this year in the debate over background checks for gun permits. The result, all but lost in the commotion over other gun-violence debates, was a bipartisan bill that will send court workers into old file cabinets and microfiche readers to excavate decisions that should bar people from buying or carrying firearms.

From 1994 to 2010, Stanek says, records of thousands of people with mental illness who were committed to hospitals by judges were not sent into the federal background check database known as NICS, for National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Such commitments are supposed to bar gun ownership, but if the records are not in the NICS, there would be no way for a firearms dealer to know.

The search for those records by state and county courts officials is about to begin, and Stanek says this is a leap forward for background checking gun purchases and protecting the public. “We made huge progress in Minnesota,” he said. The same bill also sets time limits for forwarding current criminal history information to the NICS and for transferring paper records to electronic files.

The job of finding those mental health commitment records was given to the state’s court system, which believes more than 57,000 cases will need to be re-examined.

John Kostouros, director of the Court Information Office, said the courts will be hiring someone to manage the project. “Our courts literally have to go back through old files — some on paper, some on microfiche,” Kostouros said. “Many are in storehouses because they’re so old. This will entail a lot of literally hand-digging and looking at cases, determining whether a case should be reported under current standards.”

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who pushed for the changes, said the effort to find the old commitments will cost about $1 million. “Many states had gaps in data,” she said, and that compromises the process of running a background check. The validity of the NICS as a tool is at issue. Even small gaps in records-reporting from a number of states could compromise the system’s ability to prevent illegal sales.

The issue of where the line should be drawn in denying weapons or permits to people with mental illness remains an open question.

As part of this year’s gun-violence debate, attempts were made to allow law enforcement officials to look into mental health backgrounds of gun permit applicants whom police know to be troubled, but who have never been committed by a judge.

The attempt failed after attracting opposition from both the National Rifle Association and mental health advocates.

Last Monday’s shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., shows the limits of waiting for a hospital commitment before flagging the gun database.

Aaron Alexis, the man who killed 12 people and was himself killed at the Navy Yard, had been receiving treatment for mental illness and had two previous weapons-related problems. But he never was convicted of a serious felony or committed by a judge for mental illness. That meant he was able to legally buy a shotgun in Virginia two days before he used it in the attack.

Coming Up

The MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee, wrestling with early problems with the state’s health exchange, meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Room 123 of the State Capitol.