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Federal law generally prohibits possession of firearms and ammunition by people who have been found by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others, or to lack “the mental capacity to contract or manage [their] own affairs,” as a result of their mental condition or illness.1 Federal law also generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if they have been involuntarily hospitalized or committed to a mental health or substance abuse treatment facility by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority.2

No federal law, however, requires states to report the identities of these individuals when they become ineligible to possess firearms to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) database, which the FBI uses to perform background checks prior to firearm transfers. As a result, state record reporting laws are critical to ensuring the accuracy and effectiveness of the background check system.

Iowa enacted a law in 2011 requiring courts to forward identification records to NICS whenever issuing any order or judgment under Iowa law by which a person becomes subject to federal law’s mental health-related firearm prohibitions.3 In such cases, the law requires the clerk of the district court to forward only such information as is necessary to identify the person to the Department of Public Safety, which must then in turn forward the information to the FBI for the sole purpose of inclusion in the NICS database.4 The clerk of the district court is also required to notify the person that they are subject to the federal firearm prohibition.5 In addition, the warden of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center must forward to the Iowa Department of Public Safety fingerprint records and photographs of persons committed to that institution.6

Iowa law provides a procedure for a person subject to a firearms prohibition as a result of a mental health adjudication or commitment because of an order or judgment that occurred under Iowa law to petition the court that issued the order or judgment or the court in the county where the person resides for relief from that prohibition.7 A copy of the petition must be served on the Director of Human Services and the county attorney at the county attorney’s office of the county in which the original order occurred, and the Director or the county attorney may appear, support, object to, and present evidence relevant to the relief sought by the petitioner.8 The court must receive and consider evidence in a closed proceeding, including evidence offered by the petitioner, concerning all of the following:

  • The circumstances surrounding the original issuance of the order or judgment that resulted in the firearm prohibition;
  • The petitioner’s record, which shall include, at a minimum, the petitioner’s mental health records and criminal history records, if any;
  • The petitioner’s reputation, developed, at a minimum, through character witness statements, testimony, and other character evidence; and
  • Any changes in the petitioner’s condition or circumstances since the issuance of the original order or judgment that are relevant to the relief sought.

The court shall grant the petition for relief if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the petitioner will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to the public safety and that the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest.9 If the court issues an order granting the petition for relief, the clerk of the court must immediately notify the Department of Public Safety. The Department of Public Safety shall then, as soon thereafter as is practicable but not later than ten business days thereafter, update, correct, modify, or remove the petitioner’s record in any database that the Department of Public Safety makes available to the NICS database, and shall notify the United States Department of Justice that the basis for such record being made available no longer applies.10

For general information on the background check process and categories of prohibited purchasers or possessors, see the Iowa Background Check Procedures  and Firearm Prohibitions in Iowa sections.

 See our Mental Health Reporting policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.

  1. Federal law, enacted in 1968, still uses archaic and offensive terminology to prohibit firearm access by people who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective.” 18 USC 922(g)(4). Federal regulations define that term to mean:
    (a) A determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease
    (1) Is a danger to himself or to others; or
    (2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs.Federal regulation also expressly clarifies that this firearm prohibition applies to:
    (1) A finding of insanity by a court in a criminal case; and
    (2) Those persons found incompetent to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility pursuant to [specified articles] of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 27 CFR § 478.11.[]
  2. Federal law generally prohibits firearm access by people who have previously been “committed to a mental institution.” 18 USC 922(g)(4). Federal regulations define this term to mean: “A formal commitment of a person to a mental institution by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority. The term includes a commitment to a mental institution involuntarily. The term includes commitment for mental defectiveness or mental illness. It also includes commitments for other reasons, such as for drug use. The term does not include a person in a mental institution for observation or a voluntary admission to a mental institution.” 27 C.F.R. § 478.11.[]
  3. Iowa Code § 724.31(1).[]
  4. Id.[]
  5. Id.[]
  6. Iowa Code § 690.4.[]
  7. Iowa Code § 724.31(2).[]
  8. Id.[]
  9. Iowa Code § 724.31(4).[]
  10. Iowa Code § 724.31(5).[]