Audit: Tennessee's courts lag on law keeping guns from mentally ill

Associated Press file photo

NASHVILLE -- Dangerous holes exist in a Tennessee process that is supposed to keep both guns and state handgun-carry permits out of the hands of people declared mentally ill, according to a new state comptroller audit.

The performance audit, conducted by Comptroller Justin Wilson's Division of State Audit, found that Tennessee court system management "had not fully complied with a 2013 state law regarding mental health and firearms," prompted by concerns over mass shootings nationwide.

The law mandates that county court clerks file reports within three business days on people committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as a "mental defective" on the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used by gun dealers.

Despite the law's mandate, a number of clerks aren't filing directly with the feds, instead forwarding information to the state's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to file for them, the report found. And State Audit's Risk-Based Performance Section staff found problems there, too.

The audit's purpose was to see whether processes required by the new law were being followed. Auditors did not look to see whether anyone deemed mentally ill actually had purchased a firearm from a gun dealer or was issued or possessed a state handgun-carry permit.

But it did reveal flaws in a system intended to provide more protection to the public.

"The bottom line with this is that when there are weaknesses here in this system, people who are supposed to be on this database may not be when they go in to buy a gun or to get a carry permit with the Department of Safety," said John Dunn, a spokesman for Wilson.

The issue of the mentally ill obtaining weapons has been raised across the country. Family members of Chattanooga shooter Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who killed five U.S. servicemen at a military training center on Amnicola Highway on July 16, have said their 24-year-old son had been depressed and on medication, although he was never committed.

Federal investigators have described Abdulazeez as a "homegrown violent extremist" and have looked into whether he had become radicalized by Islamist terror groups or self-radicalized through social media. They have issued no final public determination.

Comptroller staff, meanwhile, looked in 2013 and 2014 into how well the new Tennessee law was working. Among other things, the state's AOC told auditors of problems ranging from local court clerks failing to understand requirements or follow the new rules, all the way to mental institutions failing to promptly notify clerks of committals for fear of "taking away citizens' gun rights."

Auditors said they also found the AOC itself had not adequately tracked mental health report submissions from local and state court clerks whose offices submitted them to the agency instead of the FBI.

Auditors looked at 62 courts' submissions listed on an AOC spreadsheet. They were supposed to reflect courts' submissions. But when they matched the spreadsheet with the FBI's NICS database, they found the AOC's spreadsheet contained errors for 16 courts - 26 percent - of the 62.

The AOC's application support manager offered several possible explanations for the omissions, including typographical mistakes, timing differences between courts submitting the mental health reports and when FBI personnel entered the information.

The AOC's director of information technology and director of fiscal services told auditors the agency relies on court clerks to send them accurate information. And the FBI "does not consistently forward confirmation emails to the AOC."

"As a result," auditors' report continues, "the AOC is not able to verify when the FBI entered the mental health reports into the NICS database."

And, auditors were told by the AOC's information technology director, "courts have experienced difficulties with understanding the reporting requirements."

Not only that. Six, or 10 percent, of the courts in the 62 jurisdictions had failed to file reports within the mandated three-business-day deadline.

And while the 2013 law required court clerks to use the Tennessee Court Information System or a "functionally equivalent system" capable of submitting reports directly to the FBI, 23 percent of them - 14 of 62 courts - didn't have the ability do that.

Beth Joslin Roth with the Safe Tennessee Project, which advocates for stronger gun laws, said, "To learn that an audit revealed that Tennessee Court System management had not fully complied with state laws regarding mental health and firearms reporting is inexcusable - and terrifying."

The comptroller's office is recommending the AOC implement an effective tracking system to ensure courts comply with state law. Clerks should make sure in all instances where an individual is committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as a "mental defective," the report goes to the NICS database within three business days of notification.

And court clerks better make sure they have an automated system that is functionally equivalent to the state's to forward information to the FBI, the report says.

In its response, the AOC concurred but emphasized, "This is partly due to a funding issue. In the short term, we will devote the resources necessary to more accurately track the mental health report submissions."

The AOC has applied for a grant to create an automated monitoring system to verify clerks' timely reporting.

"This request only became possible this year because of a relief process that was drafted with the cooperation of eight state agencies and stakeholders groups over the past year," AOC management said.

The AOC also says it has applied for funds to have contract personnel to do on-site audits annually. If that grant is approved, the agency could begin that work shortly after Oct. 1.

The Comptroller's finding on the AOC's handling of the mental health requirement was part of a broader look at the Tennessee Court System.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.