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.
In 2014, Rhode Island enacted a law requiring courts to report people who are involuntarily committed to mental institutions as inpatients to NICS, and provides an exception to the rules of confidentiality for this disclosure.3 The district court must submit the name, date of birth, gender, race or ethnicity, and date of civil commitment to the NICS database of all persons subject to a civil commitment order within 48 hours of “certification,” or issuance of the order.4
The 2014 law also established a program for people prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law’s mental health prohibitions, or under Rhode Island law because of an adjudication commitment, to petition the “Relief From Disqualifiers Board” for relief from that prohibition.5 The Board is comprised of law enforcement and mental health professionals appointed by the state’s Governor.6
In determining whether to grant relief, the Board must consider evidence regarding the following: (1) the circumstances regarding the firearms prohibition; (2) the petitioner’s record, which must include, at a minimum, the petitioner’s mental health record, including a certificate of a medical doctor or psychiatrist licensed in this state certifying that the person is no longer suffering from a mental disorder which interferes or handicaps the person from handling deadly weapons; (3) all records pertaining to the petitioner’s criminal history; and (4) evidence of the petitioner’s reputation through character witness statements, testimony, or other character evidence.7 The Board also has the authority to require that the petitioner undergo a clinical evaluation and risk assessment, the results of which may be considered as evidence in determining whether to approve or deny the petition for relief.8
After a hearing on the record, the Board shall grant relief if it finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that (1) the petitioner is not likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety; and (2) granting the relief will not be contrary to the public interest.9 Upon notice that a petition for relief has been granted, the district court shall, as soon as practicable, (1) cause the petitioner’s record to be updated, corrected, modified, or removed from any database maintained and made available to the NICS database and reflect that the petitioner is no longer subject the the federal firearms prohibition pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(4) and 18 U.S.C. 922 (g)(4); and (2) notify the Attorney General of the United States that the petitioner is no longer subject to a federal firearms prohibition pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(4) and 18 U.S.C. 922 (g)(4).10
For general information on the background check process and categories of prohibited purchasers or possessors, see the Rhode Island Background Check Procedures section and the section entitled Rhode Island Firearm Prohibitions.
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- 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.
- 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.
- 2013 RI H.B. 7939, enacting R.I. Gen. Laws § 40.1-5-8(l).
- 2013 RI H.B. 7939, enacting R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63. Persons prohibited under state law due to an adjudication commitment may petition the Disqualifiers Board after three years have elapsed from the date the civil commitment order is terminated.
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63(a).
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63(c).
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63(d).
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63(e).
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-63(h).