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THE fierce politics of universal gun-buyer background checks has stirred up such a cloud of dust in Olympia this session that a simple fact has been obscured: Washington doesn’t have a foolproof way to tell who has been civilly committed for mental illness.

That’s a big hole. Federal law bans firearms for people who have been involuntarily committed by a court; in Washington, that means a 14-day involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.

That data has been collected in Washington since 2009, although there are some gaps. At a recent legislative hearing, a Department of Social and Health Services official reported that at least 23 cases hadn’t been reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, for reasons that are unclear.

That is disturbing.

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Imagine the public outcry if a mentally ill person who should be prohibited from buying a gun did so because of a mistake, and used it for destructive purposes.

The bigger issue involves civil commitment cases before 2009, when the data was not systematically collected. The system is so clunky that state workers must search the older records by hand, tens of thousands of times a month.

Senate Bill 5282, sponsored by Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, attempts to clean up this messy but vital process. It sets an August deadline for consolidation of historic civil-commitment cases, and requires state agencies to coordinate on a clean, simple method to check prospective gun buyers for serious psychiatric history.

This process should put a premium on confidentiality and limited access. Mentally ill people must not be demonized. Voluntary admissions for psychiatric distress must be excluded.

But if the Legislature finally mandates universal background checks — and it should — the system must be foolproof.

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