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Sheriffs, DOJ call for background checks when returning guns after domestic violence

Gilman Halsted, Wisconsin Public Radio

Police and sheriffs' departments are teaming up with the Department of Justice to change a state law that prohibits them from performing the same mental health background checks a gun dealer does at a sale. At issue is returning weapons to people convicted of domestic violence.

Under current law, sheriff departments are required to confiscate guns from anyone who's been convicted of a domestic violence crime or had a domestic violence restraining order imposed against them. These offenders can, however, petition the court to get their guns back after they've been released from jail or the restraining order has been lifted. 

The problem occurs because state statutes prohibit both the courts and law enforcement officials from getting information about the mental health history of the person trying to get his or her gun back. Walworth County Sheriff David Graves says what's odd is that gun dealers can get access to those mental health records.

“If you walk into a gun dealer and you're going to buy a weapon, the gun dealer can try to get the same information. They at least get a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” Graves said. “They don't get any details. They just say 'yes, this person can own a gun, [or] no, they can't.' We cannot find out that information though.”

A bill just introduced in the legislature could change that. Graves says he's not sure why judges and law enforcement officials were ever barred from getting the same information available to gun dealers, but he says he's confident the proposed change in the law will assure that guns aren't returned to people who are mentally unstable.

“We're not asking for in-depth information. We don't need to know the details: we just want to make sure we're giving the weapons back to somebody who can have them,” Graves said.

So far there's no opposition to the proposed change, and it's likely the legislature will vote on the measure soon.