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Bill Expands Mental Health Restrictions on Gun Ownership
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February 6, 2013
Most headlines in the post-Newtown gun control debate have been focused on banning certain weapons. But the more meaningful quest may be keeping guns away from people so mentally troubled that they present a clear and present danger. WYPR’s Karen Hosler reports on Maryland proposals.
Karen Hosler: Let’s just say you are really angry. Your life stinks, and there are lots of people to blame. You got drunk and messed up a few times, and wound up in jail or a hospital. But nobody reported you as a threat because you live in Maryland, where privacy is strongly protected. Yet, at some point, stuff spun out of control and you were left with dead bodies and a smoking gun.
Delegate Liuz Simmons: It's a disaster waiting to occur.
Hosler: That was Delegate Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who has been trying for years to convince his colleagues to close loopholes in Maryland law that may respect privacy more than public safety when it comes to mental health and guns.
Simmons: The problem is that there are so many holes in our information grid that a Swiss cheese would look good by comparison n. The reality is that we do a very, very poor job because we collect very, very little information.
Hosler: Under Maryland law, Simmons said the primary prohibition for gun ownership by the mentally ill is an involuntary civil commitment to a state institution of 30 consecutive days. Such lengthy stays are so rare now, he said he’s been told that fewer than 300 such people are currently on the State Police do-not-sell list. What’s more, Maryland doesn’t even share those names with federal authorities for gun purchase background checks. Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein said 50,000 people or more could be added to Maryland’s list of those denied access to guns for mental health reasons if names were shared and the categories of prohibited purchasers were expanded. Governor Martin O’Malley, who has made gun control his top priority of this year’s General Assembly session, has proposed legislation that would greatly expand the states’ current mental health restrictions, though perhaps not as much as Delegate Simmons would prefer. Secretary Sharfstein explains:
Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein: I think that the governor is—and the governor’s proposal is attempting to improve and standardize reporting at the same time not go so far in interrupting the appropriate relationship between doctor and therapist and patient that it keeps people from going into treatment in the first place--because that could make things more dangerous.
Hosler: Governor O’Malley’s gun package, which comes up for a public hearing today, also includes a ban on assault weapons and a requirement that gun buyers be finger-printed. So far, the Mental Health Association of Maryland has not taken a position on the proposed broadening of state reporting provisions on the mentally troubled. Dan Martin, public policy director for the group, said mental health advocates are keeping their options open.
Dan Martin: The mental health association of Maryland, of course, supports keeping firearms out of the hands of people that who pose a threat of violence to others. But since there is no fool-proof way of doing that it is important to strike a balance between protecting individual civil rights and protecting public safety.
Hosler: Meanwhile Delegates Simmons and Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, have offered their own proposal. It would facilitate state police access to public court records involving the mentally ill and require mental health professionals to report to police specific threats of violence. But closing the holes in the Swiss cheese may not be so easy. The privacy lobby that helped shaped Maryland’s current practices is not likely to give up without a fight. I’m Karen Hosler, reporting in Annapolis, for 88.1 WYPR.
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