In 2009, lawmakers crafted a way to help the estimated 29,000 people whose mental health histories disqualify them under federal law from buying firearms in Oregon: a formal mechanism to ask for their gun rights back.
Four years later, with a two-year budget of $576,184 and a staff of three, the Oregon Gun Relief Program has held three hearings.
The most recent one was last July. No future hearings are scheduled, according to Juliet Follansbee, the attorney who manages the program.
The program’s staffers have so little work that they do double-duty for the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, the gun program’s parent agency whose main job is supervising people found guilty except for insanity. Because federal dollars that launched the program are expected to dry up, Oregon taxpayers would foot most of the gun program’s cost under a 2013-15 budget bill awaiting legislative approval.
The little-known program is a byproduct of federal legislation designed to push states to do a better job of forwarding names of people banned from buying firearms to the FBI.
The federal government has long maintained a database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. It relies on states to forward names of people who are unable to aid in their own defense, were found guilty except for insanity or have been involuntarily committed.
But states have spotty records of submitting names of people with disqualifying mental health issues to the federal database, a gap highlighted by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. The man who carried out the shooting, which left 32 people dead, was previously determined to be mentally ill by a judge. That determination should have disqualified him from buying a firearm.
Congress responded by offering states grant money to ensure names of such individuals reach the FBI. The dollars came with a catch, the result of lobbying by the National Rifle Association: States had to use some of the money to start up gun relief programs.
“The NRA insisted on this relief mechanism,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a national gun control group that opposed the legislation mainly because of the gun relief provision. “They weren’t going to support it without the inclusion of the relief mechanism. They are 100 percent responsible for it being there.”
Many states have passed up the grant dollars, said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He said that including mental health records in gun background checks isn’t a priority for some state political leaders, and that penalties for not forwarding names to NICS are relatively small.
Oregon, meanwhile, has received nearly $4 million in federal NICS improvement funding since 2009. The money helped the state forward its first large batch of mental health records to federal authorities in 2011. So far, the state has submitted the names of nearly 30,000 people to the federal database.
In addition, Oregon is one of 21 states with a federal gun relief program, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The agency does not track how many people have had their gun rights restored.
It’s left to each state to decide how to administer its program. In Oregon, lawmakers opted to place gun relief duties with the psychiatric security review board.
Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, led the committee that drafted the state’s gun relief law and said lawmakers worked closely with a representative of the National Rifle Association in designing a way for people to seek redress.
“It was difficult to take away this right, and there had to be a process through which they could get it restored,” Roblan said. “They were important issues to them and a lot of us.”
The National Rifle Association did not return a call seeking comment.
Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, a gun rights group, views the gun relief program as a waste of tax dollars and a “humiliating” experience for applicants. He opposes gun background checks.
Starrett sat through one of the Gun Relief Program hearings.
“They come up with these programs because they have this federal money dangled in front of their face, and who says no to that?” Starrett said. “They have to justify their existence.”
He added: “You’ve got to wonder, what are they doing the rest of the time?”
Follansbee, the head of the Gun Relief Program, has been acting as temporary executive director of its parent agency, the psychiatric board, since May. The longtime director, Mary Claire Buckley, is on leave pending a state investigation into board management.
Follansbee said when the program was designed, the state didn’t know how many people would petition to have their gun rights restored.
“Now that the names are in NICS, more people are going to be denied, so I anticipate we will have more as people go out and attempt to purchase” a firearm, she said.
Follansbee’s salary as the Gun Relief Program manager is $62,136 a year. She said when she first started the job in 2010, she spent 100 percent of her time setting up the gun relief program. But since then, work has tapered off.
Follansbee said except for preparing for three hearings in the past three years, her gun relief duties consist of handling about a half dozen calls each month from prospective gun buyers who have failed state police background checks. She fills in callers on their right to a hearing, although most haven’t gotten that far.
Follansbee is responsible for sending names each day to NICS of people found guilty except for insanity.
She also fields questions from law enforcement officials about questions raised during background checks.
The three men who petitioned to have their gun rights restored each appeared before a three-person panel drawn from the psychiatric review board, which is appointed by the governor.
The committee deliberates in private, and audio from each hearing lasts less than an hour. Eric Johnson, a forensic psychologist and panel member, peppered the men with questions about their mental health, alcohol and drug use, arrest records and whether they had violent tendencies.
In each case, the panel restored the applicant’s rights.
Steven Stewart, one of the successful petitioners, said some people who have lost their gun rights should get a second chance.
“I definitely believe there should be a process,” he said.
Stewart, who said many people in his life don’t know his personal history, reluctantly agreed to talk about his experience with The Oregonian. He spoke on the condition that his employer and hometown not be identified.
Many years earlier, when Stewart was in his early 20s, he said he was addicted to meth and refused his parents’ pleas to get help. His parents sought Stewart’s involuntary commitment to a Portland hospital psychiatric ward as a last resort, he said.
Stewart remembers attending the commitment hearing having been high on meth for days.
“God only knows what I told those people,” he said.
He didn’t realize the court-ordered 30-day commitment, which helped him kick meth, would disqualify him from buying guns permanently under federal law. Indeed, because background checks for mental health issues were so hit-or-miss at the time, Stewart succeeded in obtaining a concealed handgun license despite his involuntary commitment.
Stewart said he first learned he was barred from purchasing a firearm when he tried to buy a shotgun at a Portland gun show about a decade ago. An Oregon State Police background check flagged him.
Stewart said people with mental illness who are violent shouldn’t get a chance to regain their gun rights. But he said his distant past shouldn’t permanently block him from buying a gun.
“I don’t suffer from depression, delusions, hallucinations,” said Stewart, a married father of two who’s got a steady job. “I am pretty mentally fit. I am very successful.”
His parents, his wife and his supervisor spoke on his behalf at his gun relief hearing.
Two weeks after his gun rights were restored, he walked into a gun store. The gun dealer ran Stewart’s name through the state background check. Again, he was denied.
Stewart stepped outside and called Follansbee, the administrator of the gun relief program. She called the state police to say their records were outdated. A few minutes later, Stewart walked out of the shop, a new XDM Springfield handgun at his side.