ST. PAUL, Minn. - A coalition of Minnesota sheriffs is asking lawmakers to consider reforms that will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of persons with serious mental illnesses.
"The severely mentally ill should never have access to guns," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek told reporters.
"Having said that we have a epidemic of untreated mental illness here in the United States, and right here in Minnesota."
The recent case of Christian Oberender in Watertown has exposed holes in Minnesota's criminal background check system, according to Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson.
"In some cases civil commitments are not being entered into the NICS system," Olson explained.
"In other cases the system isn't catching names that are spelled slightly different."
In 1995, when Oberender was 14 years old, he was ordered into juvenile detention for the shooting death of his mother. His juvenile case file is sealed, but authorities say he was civilly committed to the state security hospital in St. Peter at some point after leaving the juvenile court system.
Deputies arrested Oberender two weeks ago after discovering many firearms in his home, along with notes he'd written indicating a fragile emotional state. But his juvenile court record, and mental health commitment records, were not available when Carver County deputies ran a background check.
"Never, and I mean never, should a person who has been deemed mentally ill and dangerous by the courts be allowed to purchase a handgun," Sheriff Olson said.
One the side of the spectrum is the case of Sahar Sandar Nikpay, who is accused of opening fire on Hennepin County Sheriff's deputies in Robbinsdale in 2010.
He was later judged mentally incompetent to stand trial, but has since undergone some treatment and has been deemed fit to face the charges. Nikpay had several firearms in his home the day of his standoff with deputies, despite an extensive juvenile court record, according to Sheriff Stanek.
"If he had applied for a gun permit today these disqualifying records would've come up in a background check, and that's the way the system is supposed to work," Stanek remarked.
"But we need all the records from all the courts in Minnesota."
Stanek, along with the prosecutors, judges and lawmakers who who joined him, were careful to stress that persons with mental illness are no more dangerous than the general population when they're getting treatment.
But there are many that either can't afford treatment, or can't be convinced of the need because of their state of mind.
"I think it's important to reiterate, that mental illness and violence don't go hand in hand, that most people with a mental illness are not violent," Sue Abderholden, the director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Minnesota chapter told reporters.
"And I think we also need to recognize that we truly have thousands of people with mental illness who are trying to seek treatment and can't get it."
There are no bills pending yet at the Capitol that would address any of the goals outlined by the sheriffs. Stanek referred to it as the beginning of a conversation that needs to happen in light of recent events.
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