Easy access to firearms by mentally ill worries state lawmakers

Severely mentally ill people in Nevada have easy access to firearms and rarely get reported to a background check registry meant to prevent dangerous people from buying guns, a state Senate panel was told Thursday during a hearing focused on gun violence in the wake of recent mass shootings.

Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, used the example of Eduardo Sencion, who killed four people at an IHOP in Carson City on Sept. 6, 2011, as an example of a mentally ill person who was committed to psychiatric institutions several times, yet was able to buy high-powered weapons both from licensed dealers and private individuals.

“At one point, in fact, Sencion attempted to sell an Uzi to a local gun shop,” Jones said. “Each time Sencion purchased weapons from a licensed dealer, an FBI background check was run. However, because the commitments were not reported to the FBI, he was not prohibited from purchasing firearms.”

Sencion, 32, never got into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System because he voluntarily committed himself to psychiatric hospitals after being diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18.

Two months before the shooting with a modified automatic weapon, Sencion’s medication was changed, and he told a priest he was hearing voices, said Jones, who recounted the story as he opened the hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which the lawmaker chairs.

Jones said he called the hearing on mental illness and firearms to hear from experts in the field to determine whether Nevada lawmakers can take any actions to prevent such violence in the future.

Those testifying said there are gaps in the system, which often prevent even the most dangerous mentally ill people who are suicidal or homicidal from being reported to the federal background registry for gun purchases.

Judge William Voy, who supervises the mental health court in Clark County, said even when he commits someone to a psychiatric hospital against their will, they don’t get reported to the gun background check registry if they’re released within 30 days. Most patients are released fairly quickly after going back on medication. Voy said a hearing is held 45 days after the original commitment to determine the status of the case.

“That’s a problem,” Jones said.

Paul Howell, the undersheriff in Douglas County, suggested mentally ill people be placed in the registry as soon as an order is signed placing a person under 72-hour observation.

Voy said abruptly putting someone in the federal registry could violate the person’s Second Amendment right to have a gun because due process may require the individual to be legally deemed mentally ill first.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, has proposed a middle ground with legislation that would put mentally ill people in the background check registry after a formal petition is filed to commit them. The petition requires a diagnosis of mental illness by a psychiatrist, he said.

He said he had no interest in violating anybody’s Second Amendment rights and would include a provision to allow someone to regain their ability to buy firearms after they’re no longer considered a threat.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.