Dangerously Mentally Ill People Are Banned From Buying A Gun. In Wyoming, They Can Buy One Anyway

Jan 22, 2016

Ryan Allen at Frontier Arms.
Credit Miles Bryan

Before you can buy a gun at Frontier Arms in Cheyenne, you have to fill out “Form 4473.” It asks questions like “Are you addicted to drugs?” and “Have you been convicted of a felony?” Owner Ryan Allen said, for most questions, there’s no use lying.

“In questions [where] we are talking about an actual crime, it's going to come up,” Allen said. “There are no if, ands, or buts about that.”

That’s because Elliot feeds the info into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is constantly updated with conviction data from Wyoming and every other state. The Gun Control Act of 1968 bans people with certain criminal convictions from purchasing firearms.

That act also bans people who have been treated against their will in a mental institution, or found mentally defective by a legal authority, from buying guns. But Wyoming is one of a handful of states that does not submit mental health records to the background check system. That means that gun sellers like Ryan Allen have no way to know if a customer is legally barred from purchasing a firearm  for mental health reasons. Allen said he wishes Wyoming would submit those records.

“For someone like myself, the 2nd amendment is so very important,” Allen said. “Especially in Wyoming ownership of firearms is just a huge part of the culture. To protect that culture I would think it would be very important to make sure that we are not allowing people who are mentally ill or sick, to be able to purchase firearms.”

For someone like myself, the 2nd amendment is so very important. Especially in Wyoming ownership of firearms is just a huge part of the culture. To protect that culture I would think it would be very important to make sure that we are not allowing people who are mentally ill or sick, to be able to purchase firearms.

Wyoming is one of six states that have submitted less than a hundred mental health records to the background check system since it was created in the 1990s, according to FBI data compiled by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.  In the last five years more a thousand people in Wyoming have been committed to the Wyoming State Psychiatric Hospital--at least a thousand names that technically should be on the no-gun-buy list. The federal government doesn’t force states to submit mental health records, and Wyoming officials say they can’t until state law changes. State Senator Curt Meier was against a 2014  bill that would have done that.

“I think the federal government has shown a propensity to try and get control of guns,” Meier said in a recent interview.

Meier said he is worried that even this kind of record sharing could be slippery slope—to a weakening of second amendment rights.

“Whenever you send records at the state level back to the federal government I thinks it's the proverbial camel's nose under the tent as far as them developing a database, so they can have federal gun registration.”

William Rosen said this kind of worry over submitting mental health records is unwarranted.

“It should be the least controversial thing that you can imagine.”

Rosen is in the council with Everytown for Gun Safety. He said gun rights advocates want to focus on mental health and enforcing existing laws, and submitting mental health records to the background check system does that. Record submission even supported by the National Rifle Association. The number of states  that submit almost no such records to the background check system fell from twenty-three in 2011 to just six today, according to Rosen’s group. And Rosen said he’s optimistic that number will keep shrinking.

“If there is one thing we can agree on,” Rosen said, “it's that the small number of people in this country that are dangerously mentally ill should not have easy access to firearms.”

But in Wyoming, there is no consensus. This year, no legislators have yet expressed interest in bringing a bill to keep guns out of the hands of those deemed dangerously mentally ill.