In its first bill passed this session, the Texas Senate sought to ensure juvenile mental health hospitalizations are reported to the federal firearm background check system.
The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would close a loophole in state law that had allowed gun sales to people who were involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness between the ages of 16 and 18. It was the first bill passed by the Senate this year.
Courts are supposed to report all involuntary mental health hospitalizations to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which then sends those records to the FBI’s national firearms background check system. But last year, a ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation found that information about mental health hospitalizations of juveniles age 16 and older were not being reported by county and district courts due to problems with the way the state law was written and vague guidance from the state.
As a result, when those juveniles who’d been involuntarily hospitalized turned 18, they could pass the background check and buy a rifle — if they did not have a criminal record.
The problem came to light after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old shooter who had bought two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles after passing a background check. The shooter had a history of mental health problems, officials have said, but had never been hospitalized.
In June 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which changed state reporting requirements to the federal background check system to include mental health adjudications of juveniles age 16 and older — putting Texas’ lack of reporting out of compliance with federal law.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, filed the bill that would put Texas in compliance with federal law and clarify that courts must report court-ordered mental health services and admissions to health care facilities due to a mental illness or intellectual disability. Though passed by the Senate, the bill will still need to be considered by the House of Representatives before making its way to the governor’s desk.
“Members, this bill is on the emergency call for the governor as it will indirectly — and directly in some cases — affect school safety,” Huffman said. “It’s an important bill.”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, pointed out that closing the loophole would not have affected the shooter in the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018 nor the shooter in Uvalde, neither of whom had a juvenile record of mental health hospitalizations.
“I don’t think anything is foolproof,” said Huffman in response. “I think our challenge is to increase the mental health treatment that we provide [in Texas].”
Juvenile advocates and gun rights groups have urged caution in the reporting of juvenile records, calling for avenues to allow young adults to have their gun rights restored.
And mental health advocates have warned against using mental illness as a scapegoat when it comes to gun violence. “A vast majority of firearm violence is not attributed to mental illness,” the American Psychiatric Association said in a statement after the Uvalde shooting. “Rhetoric that argues otherwise will further stigmatize and interfere with people accessing needed treatment without addressing the root causes of firearm violence.”
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, asked Huffman if she could assure him the bill would not create a red flag law — which generally refers to laws that would allow the government to seize guns from people who are “flagged” as an imminent danger to others.
He also asked whether individuals who would be affected by the bill would ever be able to get off the list and purchase a firearm.
Huffman said that it’s not a red flag law, and that DPS would be required to establish a procedure to correct records when a person provides a judicial order finding that person is no longer incapacitated.
Huffman said she was proud that the bill would pass with bipartisan support.
“This has actually been kind of a long time to get it to a place where it works, it complies with federal law, it’ll require DPS to do what they need to do [and it will] make it clear to the clerks that they have to comply,” Huffman said, “but still work in a way that I felt like I could pass it out of the Legislature, which is very important.
“We can have good ideas, but if we can’t get it passed, it’s not going to make a difference,” Huffman said. “I wanted this bill to make a difference.”
Photo: A patron holds a handgun at the SAXET Gun Show at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds in Robstown on Feb. 26, 2023. Credit: Blaine Young for The Texas Tribune