By TREVOR BROWN
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) _ Every once in a while Frank Gerstenkorn gets a weird feeling when someone walks into his Guns & Gear store downtown.
Maybe it’s something they say or just how they behave.
But Gerstenkorn, a former law enforcement official who owns the store, says he will refuse to sell customers weapons if he has a good reason to believe they are dangerous or are mentally ill.
That’s partly because he knows an FBI-run background-check system won’t necessarily flag those who have been declared mentally ill by a court and banned by federal law from owning a firearm.
“Very frankly, I wish the onus wasn’t on us, the gun retailers, to make that judgment,” he said. “Will we make that call? Absolutely. But it shouldn’t be my decision whether I should or shouldn’t sell them a gun just because the hair on the back of my neck is standing up.”
A new report shows that Wyoming is one of only eight states that does not routinely submit mental-health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The system is intended to notify retailers if potential buyers are prohibited by law from possessing a firearm. This could be because they were convicted of a felony, have been “adjudicated as mentally defective” or because of another reason.
Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, released its updated study this week. It shows how many mental-health reports each state has submitted to the background-check system.
It found Wyoming submitted only three mental-health records in the nearly 20 years since the background-check system was established.
Meanwhile, Colorado, which was one of the top 10 highest-performing states for submitting the records, has sent about 51,900 reports in the same time frame.
Jonas Oransky, counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, said this is because Wyoming lacks a law instructing state agencies to send the mental-health information to the FBI database.
He said many other states have chosen to do this in the wake of the numerous mass shootings that have occurred over the last decade.
Oransky said the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 people dead was one case where the perpetrator could have been blocked from buying his weapon if his mental-health record was flagged.
“I don’t really have to dramatize the size of this loophole,” he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (http://bit.ly/1GXyi93).
And it’s not only gun-control groups that are pushing for changes.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation is a pro-gun ownership group. It has urged states for several years to provide the FBI database with proper mental-health records.
Instead of arguing over policy, Mike Bazinet, director of public affairs for the foundation, took issue with Everytown trying take credit for the initiative.
“This is another case of Everytown taking credit for what has been a program of the firearms industry,” he said in an emailed statement. “Everytown comes in after the fact yet again and tries to claim credit.”
But Wyoming lawmakers have been reluctant to consider changes to the state’s law.
Sen. Fred Emerich, R-Cheyenne, sponsored a bill last year that would have required the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to provide a system to collect and report records to the FBI if someone is blocked from owning a gun because of a mental-health issue.
The bill silently died in a committee and didn’t see floor debate.
Emerich said he thought it was a common-sense bill that could save lives.
“It’s not creating a new law or anything,” he said. “It’s just enforcing what we already have.”
Emerich blamed the bill’s failure on the reluctance of legislative leadership to embrace the issue and opposition from the anti-gun control lobby.
Specifically, he said Wyoming Gun Owners, a statewide group that bills itself as a “no compromise” advocacy organization, played a big role in killing the proposal.
Anthony Bouchard, who runs the group, said strengthening background-check laws would do little to make the public safer.
“When we look at facts, Illinois is a state that (ranked higher than Wyoming in Everytown’s rankings). Even with the strictest of gun control measures, Chicago still leads the charts with murderous shootings,” he said.
“What has Bloomberg’s background check expansion done for them? Absolutely nothing. Bloomberg needs to stay out of Wyoming.”
Emerich said he doubts he will bring his bill again during next year’s budget session. But he said it’s possible he will push it again in 2017 if he can muster more support.
“I’m not someone who likes to be all by themselves on the floor,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s ready for prime time yet.”