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.
Tennessee law requires submission of mental health records to NICS. The state’s circuit courts, criminal courts, general sessions courts, county/probate courts and chancery courts that have made the orders and adjudications listed above must report this fact to NICS and the Tennessee Department of Safety.3
This reporting must include the:4
- Complete name and all aliases of the individual judicially committed or adjudicated, including any names that the individual may have had or currently has by reason of marriage or otherwise;
- Case or docket number of the judicial commitment or adjudication;
- Date judicial commitment was ordered or adjudication was made;
- Private or state hospital or treatment resource to which the individual was judicially committed;
- Date of birth of the individual judicially committed or adjudicated, if such information has been provided to the clerk;5
- Race and sex of the individual judicially committed or adjudicated ; and
- Social security number of the individual judicially committed or adjudicated (if available).
The aforementioned information is confidential and not subject to public inspection except if necessary for any proceedings for the suspension or revocation of handgun carry permits.6
Tennessee law requires clerks of court to confirm with the administrative office of the courts when these reports are made to NICS. The law requires these reports to be made as soon as practicable, but no later than the third business day following the date of such an order or adjudication. If a clerk of court is unable to make a report to NICS, he or she must provide the administrative office of the courts with sufficient information so the office can make the report. The law also details the consequences of noncompliance, including that the administrative office of the courts will no longer accept data from an office not in compliance until such time as the errors are corrected.7
Under Tennessee law, if a person who has become ineligible to possess firearms due to their mental health attempts to purchase a firearm, and the instant check unit of the Tennessee bureau of investigation confirms the person’s record, the unit shall contact, within twenty-four hours, the chief law enforcement officer of the jurisdiction where the attempted purchase occurred for the purpose of initiating an investigation into a possible violation of law.8
Tennessee law also establishes procedures for an individual prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law for mental health reasons to petition for relief from the federal prohibition.9 A person who is subject to federal law’s mental health-related firearm prohibition may petition the court that entered the commitment or adjudication order once three years have elapsed from the person’s date of release from commitment or the date of the adjudication order, whichever is later.10
The court must receive and consider evidence in an open proceeding concerning:
- The circumstances that led to the imposition of the federal firearms disability;
- The petitioner’s mental health records;
- The petitioner’s criminal history;
- The petitioner’s reputation; and
- Changes in the petitioner’s condition or circumstances relevant to the relief sought.11
The court shall grant the petition for relief if it finds by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the petitioner is no longer likely to act in a manner that is dangerous to public safety; and (2) granting the relief would not be contrary to the public interest.12 When the court issues an order granting a petition of relief, the court clerk must, as soon as practicable and within 30 days, forward a copy of the order to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).13 Upon receipt of the order, the TBI must then immediately forward a copy of the order to the Department of Safety; update the NICS database and transmit the corrected records to the FBI; and remove and destroy all records relating to the petition for relief from any database over which the TBI exercises control.14 If denied, the petitioner may also appeal a final order, or file one new petition for relief every two years.15
For general information on the background check process and categories of prohibited purchasers or possessors, see the Tennessee Background Check Procedures and Tennessee Firearm Prohibitions sections.
See our Mental Health Reporting policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.
- 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.
- Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-10-213(b), (c), 16-11-206(b), (c), 16-15-303(g)(2), 16-16-120(b). The documentation and reporting requirements of mental health adjudications and judicial commitments to mental institutions discussed in this section apply to any clerk of court that maintains such records. Tenn. Code Ann. § 33-3-115.
- Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-10-213(c), 16-11-206(c), 16-15-303(g)(3), 16-16-120(c).
- Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-10-213(d), 16-11-206(d), 16-15-303(g)(4), 16-16-120(d).
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-1-117.
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 38-6-109(f).
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-10-205.
- Id. A copy of the petition for relief shall also be served on the district attorney general of the judicial district in which the original commitment or adjudication occurred. The district attorney general may appear, support, object to, or present evidence relevant to the relief sought by the petitioner.