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Firearms and the mentally ill: How one state’s alert system helps cops stay safe

Arizona implemented a message to alert cops if the subject they’re approaching has a mental health court order that makes him or her prohibited from possessing a gun


Esteban Santiago, right, accused of fatally shooting several people and wounding multiple others at a crowded Florida airport baggage claim, is returned to Broward County’s main jail after his first court appearance, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

AP Photo/Alan Diaz

As the investigation continues from last week’s tragedy at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, officials have indicated that the suspect was suffering from mental illness. Several reports and stories have surfaced about the gaps in the justice system, with one question being how an individual with a mental illness purchases a firearm from a federal firearm licensee.

In order for an FFL to know that the individual has a mental health court order or is a prohibited possessor, that information must be available somewhere for them to query, which brings us to the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The FBI NICS was developed as a result of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act. The FBI implemented this national program in 1998 and continues to expand its capabilities to keep officers and communities safe by stopping prohibited possessors from acquiring firearms from FFLs.

Currently, there are gaps in the justice system, because in order for FFLs to know that individuals who suffer from mental illness should be prohibited possessors, that data needs to be in NICS. Additionally, how will law enforcement officers know if the subject they just stopped has a mental health court order and that he or she should be prohibited from having a firearm?

Recently, Arizona developed and implemented a new message to address both issues. The message alerts law enforcement officers if the subject they’re approaching has a mental health court order that makes him or her a prohibited possessor. The alert appears as a response when an officer is running a warrants query that touches the Arizona Crime Information Center. This state-wide, multi-year initiative was federally funded by multiple grants from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

How did Arizona achieve this?

The interagency effort to develop and implement the solution involved state agencies, including the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts, and input from key stakeholders – including local police and sheriffs, Superior Courts and subject matter experts. It was critical for all stakeholders to have a voice and buy-in for this new message because it directly affects all of their operations.

The ACJC was charged with leading the development of legislation, bringing together the stakeholders and overseeing the grant. The AZ AOC and AZ DPS were charged with developing the technical solution. The local agencies – Superior Courts and law enforcement – are the end-users of this information and were charged with developing local policy and procedure about what to do if they get a hit that the subject has a court order for mental illness and is a prohibited possessor.

Ability to replicate

This approach can be replicated in other states. Like any technical solution, it’s not as easy as it seems on paper. It takes time to bridge theory and practice, but Arizona has seen the initiative through its lifecycle (from developing legislation through technical implementation). Even though it is a multi-year level of effort, it is a way for officers to know if the individual they are questioning has a mental health court order that makes him or her a prohibited possessor.

In order for any state to begin pursuing and replicating this model, meetings between the state police agency, state courts, state attorney general, selected major city chiefs and sheriffs and smaller departments and Superior Courts within the state must occur to determine the feasibility of the solution and whether or not legislation needs to be drafted (and passed). If the state and local stakeholders are in agreement that this solution should be and can be replicated, then meetings and discussions with the FBI NICS Program Office should take place to kick off the initiative.

While this is not a fail-safe solution, it is a great step in making officers more aware of the situation they’re entering into. In a profession as unpredictable as law enforcement, the more information our officers have, the better.

Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at