Another gap has surfaced in how Florida screens applicants for gun carry permits: The state agency responsible can't access a federal database containing 1.6 million records of people nationwide with mental illness, the Sun Sentinel found.
Because it is not a law enforcement agency, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services cannot obtain information from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as "NICS", when considering whether to grant a concealed weapon license.
In addition to certain mental health records, the index has other potentially disqualifying information gathered nationwide, such as data on illegal immigrants, drug addicts, military personnel who have been dishonorably discharged, and people who have renounced U.S. citizenship.
Last month, the Sun Sentinel reported that Florida wasn't completing background checks for gun carry permits on those applicants whose fingerprint card submissions repeatedly were illegible.
The latest development raises additional concerns about the thoroughness and reliability of the state's concealed weapon screening process.
Efforts have intensified nationwide to pool information about potentially unstable firearm holders since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, when 32 people were gunned down bySeung-Hui Cho,who had been ordered by a court two years earlier to undergo mental health treatment.
Since then, states and the federal government have been working to share information through the NICS system to prevent anyone from obtaining firearms if they have been ruled mentally incompetent or committed to a mental hospital.
Florida law enforcement does check the NICS system, and its nearly 8 million records in total, when screening gun purchases made through licensed firearm dealers. But Florida can't use the NICS system for concealed carry permits because a criminal justice agency doesn't administer the licensing program.
As a result, gun control advocates say, Florida could be missing potentially vital pieces of information for weeding out individuals with a history of mental illness.
"It seems incredibly silly and dangerous to public safety to let this information rest on the shelf," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "People with dangerous mental health histories should not be allowed to carry firearms in Florida."
Most states do check the NICS system when considering whether to grant a gun permit, the Sun Sentinel found.
But Florida can't because concealed weapon permits here are handled by the Agriculture Department.
Since the department is not a law enforcement agency, by federal regulation, it is prohibited from receiving information from NICS.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is involved in the permitting process, as the performer of background checks, but is barred by federal regulations from passing along NICS-acquired data to a non-criminal justice agency. So FDLE doesn't consult the database.
"We are complying with all of the laws as they are," said FDLE bureau chief Martha Wright, who oversees the screening process. "I'm not sure there is anything else we can do within the current regulatory structure."
Horwitz, however, says there is no excuse for Florida not to make the administrative changes necessary to be able to view the data, particularly given that they can be retrieved instantly.
"I think the bottom line is that someone needs to check this information," he said. "There should be an easy solution to this problem."
Agriculture Department spokesman Sterling Ivey said Friday that the department is working with FDLE to determine what can be done.
"Unfortunately, there are restrictions in place on who can use and access the NICS data and until the results of a NICS check is allowed to be received by the department, the department has no other alternative but to continue to follow current law," Ivey said.
The background screening gap is particularly significant because Florida is a go-to place nationwide for gun carry permits that then are valid in other states through so-called reciprocity agreements.
Florida has 952,000 active concealed weapon licenses. Nearly 12 percent are held by out-of-state residents, according to the Agriculture Department.
Applicants to the state for carry permits must submit their fingerprints, which are used for a background check.
FDLE runs applicants' names through four databases. One contains Florida criminal histories. Another state database has information on Floridians with outstanding arrest warrants or domestic violence restraining orders.
Florida also cross checks applicants with the FBI's index of nationwide criminal histories, and with another federal database of people that police officers should be on the lookout for, like fugitives, sexual offenders, convicts on probation and others.
Clerks of courts throughout the state also provide FDLE with cases in which people in Florida have been found mentally incompetent or
committed to a mental hospital – information that is used by the Department of Agriculture in concealed carry screenings.
But it is not a nationwide database, as NICS is.
The Sun Sentinel reported in June that if two fingerprint card submissions for a concealed carry permit were illegible, Florida wasn't completing federal criminal history checks and that a permit might be issued to the applicant anyway.
Since the newspaper's report, the state has revised its procedure. Now the Agriculture Department will ask the FBI to run a name check on anyone submitting illegible fingerprints to determine whether he or she has a criminal record anywhere in the United States, Ivey said.
"The overwhelming majority of Florida concealed weapon permit holders are responsibly following the law," Ivey said.
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