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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.

Pennsylvania law requires the reporting of mental health information to NICS by the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”), stating:

“Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the Pennsylvania State Police shall, within 72 hours of receipt, disclose, electronically or otherwise, to the United States Attorney General or a designee, any record relevant to a determination of whether a person is disqualified from possessing or receiving a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) or (4) [prohibiting possession of a firearm or ammunition by any person who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance or who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or involuntarily committed to any mental institution] or an applicable state statute and any record relevant to a determination of whether a person is not disqualified or is no longer disqualified from possessing or receiving a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3) or (4) or an applicable state statute.”3

Pennsylvania law also requires judges of the courts of common pleas to notify PSP, on a form developed by PSP, of:

  • The identity of any individual who has been adjudicated as an incompetent or as a mental defective or who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or who has been involuntarily treated as an inpatient or outpatient as described or federal or Pennsylvania law relating to firearms; and
  • Any finding of fact or court order related to any person prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm or ammunition as an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.4

The notification must be transmitted by the judge to PSP within seven days of the adjudication, commitment or treatment.5

The Pennsylvania law that governs the confidentiality of mental health records states that it does not restrict judges of the courts of common pleas, mental health review officers and county mental health and mental retardation administrators from disclosing information to PSP or PSP from disclosing information to any person, in accordance with these provisions.6

If a court grants relief from the Pennsylvania prohibition on firearm possession by persons adjudicated to be incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution, a copy of the order must be sent to PSP within ten days. The order must include the name, date of birth and social security number of the individual.7

As of November 2013, Pennsylvania is a leader in the number of people identified in NICS because of mental illness.8

For general information on the background check process and categories of prohibited purchasers or possessors, see the Pennsylvania Background Check Procedures section and the section entitled Prohibited Purchasers Generally.

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  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. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6111.1(f)(3).[]
  4. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6111.1(f). See also 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6109(i.1)(2), which requires “the judge of the court of common pleas, mental health review officer or county mental health and mental retardation administrator” to report to PSP persons adjudicated incompetent, or involuntarily committed for inpatient care and treatment, or upon involuntary treatment of a person as described in 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(c)(4). See also 50 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 7109(d) (same).[]
  5. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6109(i.1)(2), 6111.1(f)(2); 50 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 7109(d).[]
  6. 50 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 7111.[]
  7. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(j). For PSP’s regulations regarding the reporting of mental health information, see 37 Pa. Code §§ 33.103(e), 33.120.[]
  8. Everytown for Gun Safety, Closing the Gaps: Strengthening the Background Check System to Keep Guns Away from the Dangerously Mentally Ill (May 2014), at http://everytown.org/article/closing-the-gaps/?source=fbno_closingthegaps&utm_source=fb_n_&utm_medium=_o&utm_campaign=closingthegaps.[]