Wyoming officials plan to review new federal gun regulation

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming officials say they intend to review a new federal rule designed to encourage states to turn over mental health records to a database that tracks people who should be prohibited from purchasing guns, but they say they still believe it would require a changing state law to begin doing so.

Wyoming is one of a handful of states that doesn't inform the federal government about people who have been committed involuntarily to mental health institutions — an action that makes them ineligible to own firearms. State officials say they are concerned about whether the federal database will respect the privacy rights of patients.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a new rule this week as part of President Barack Obama's push to tighten gun control.

According to the federal agency, the change to privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act make it easier for states to submit mental health information to the National Criminal Background Check System.

Gun dealers typically run a purchaser's name through the system to make sure that the purchaser isn't a felon, someone who's been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or otherwise barred from buying guns. Health and Human Services emphasized that merely seeking help for mental health problems or getting treatment wouldn't prohibit a person from having firearms.

The gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety last month released a report based on FBI data stating that Wyoming and five other states each has submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal system since the database started operating in 1988.

Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health, said this week that the department is reviewing the new federal rule and expects to consult with the state Attorney General's Office.

The Wyoming Legislature in 2014 rejected a bill that would have required the state to turn over the mental health information to the federal background check system. Former Wyoming lawmaker Keith Gingery, a criminal prosecutor in Teton County, co-sponsored the bill.

"People with mental illness a lot of times are the people that are committing mass shootings," Gingery said. "And if we're aware that this person may have a mental health issue, we should make sure the database has a record that this person should not be obtaining firearms."

Speaking last month before the federal government released the rule change, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said he believes everyone has an interest in doing better at keeping people who suffer from mental illness deficiency from getting a firearm. However, he said has concerns about the privacy of the federal database.

"So I would remain concerned about how that would work, and what assurances we have that it's improperly used," Mead said.

Assistant Wyoming Attorney General John Brodie said federal law doesn't require states to provide mental health information to the federal system, but instead gives grant money to states that do comply. And he said Wyoming law specifies that health information can't be released without the patient's authorization unless it's required to be released by law.

"Since there's no law in place that requires that disclosure currently, we're basically stuck with it," Brodie said. "So health care institutions cannot release the information unless they have the patient's authorization."

Mark Russler with the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers said Thursday the group supports reporting information about involuntary mental health commitments to the federal database.

"Those folks, when they are involuntarily hospitalized, they do lose some civil rights, and one of them happens to be whether or not they can purchase firearms," Russler said. "And I think the people who need to screen for that, I think they need to have those folks listed."

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