The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 22, 2013

Our View: Background checks for gun buyers need upgrades

The Free Press

— The story was too bizarre to be true. A convicted murderer — a man deemed by the state of Minnesota to be mentally ill and dangerous — had acquired an arsenal of legally purchased guns.

A investigation by the Star Tribune showed the man, Christian Oberender, convicted of killing his mother and eventually committed as mentally ill and dangerous to the St. Peter Security Hospital, was in possession of 13 guns, including an AK-47, Tommy gun and a host of other guns, many of which, authorities determined, he was able to buy legally with a permit he had acquired.

The problem was not restricted to this one case however. The investigation found that some 84 people have been charged since 2000 with illegal possession of a gun or assault with a dangerous weapon even though they had previously been committed by a judge of being mentally ill.

Another 168,000 people in Minnesota have arrest records but because those records are incomplete, the BCA cannot determine if they should be able to buy a gun. The presumption is then, many of them would be allowed.

Even though the Minnesota Department of Human Services has been trying to coordinate its mental health records with law enforcement and the BCA, the BCA says because commitment data is considered “private” under state law, it cannot get the information.

In some cases, courts commit people to community-based setting, thus requiring courts to submit the information to the BCA.

Says BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira: “There is no way BCA can have DHS’s commitment data.”

Therein lies part of this rather serious problem.

The DHS has made some progress in streamlining its system. Last year, of 32,000 background checks it allowed law enforcement access, 500 people were flagged as needing a further check. But the DHS also check court records, the most accurate information on civil commitment, and it has said that the system without more identifying information, would make it difficult to determine if a person should be flagged.

In the Oberender case, a simple flipping of his first and middle name may have caused him to elude all the background information that state had.

Clearly, the Legislature needs to fix this system with a sense of urgency. Will it cost money? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes.

Everyone has to get on board. DHS, BCA and yes the public needs to demand that in some cases, privacy concerns are going to have to take a back seat if someone is wanting to possess a gun.