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April 7, 2014

Advocate warns against restricting access to guns for mentally ill

HARRISBURG — In the aftermath of another mass shooting and an inevitable debate over gun laws, a mental health advocate and gun control lobbyist are warning against unfairly restricting the mentally ill from accessing firearms.

“We have to strike a balance between civil rights and public safety," said Deb Shoemaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, who served on a state advisory panel on violence prevention  after the mass shooting in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Pennsylvania State Police now track people who are involuntarily committed to mental hospitals based on records obtained from county mental health officials, said State Police spokeswoman Maria Finn. The state voluntarily pairs those records with a national database used to check gun buyers , as it has since a gunman in Newtown killed 20 children and six adults in December 2012.

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, has written a bill to formalize the arrangement and require the records be shared. Some advocates object on the grounds that State Police have no indication why someone has been committed, and therefore could prevent people who pose no threat from buying guns.

Shoemaker said some people with mental illness “shouldn’t have a gun because of a propensity of violence.” But, she noted, only about 4 percent of people with mental illness are violent.

Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun control group CeaseFirePA, said she supports allowing police to temporarily seize weapons from a mentally ill person or barring someone from buying weapons during a mental health crisis. That would take firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals, she said, without prohibiting someone from owning guns years after they’re hospitalized for a non-violent condition.

Lawmakers and advocates are testing the political will at the Capitol for tighter gun restrictions as the nation reels from news of last week’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. The gunman in that case, who shot himself, was reportedly being assessed for mental health problems. That’s likely to focus the debate on the mentally ill — much as the Newton massacre did following reports of shooter Adam Lanza’s mental illness.

In Pennsylvania, there’s already ambivalence about such restrictions. A commission convened after the Newtown shooting suggested the state’s background checks may actually keep guns out of the hands of too many mentally ill people. It reached the finding after its advisory panel on violence prevention — of which Shoemaker was a member — found no pressing reason to change the state's background check process.

Pennsylvania has the 11th strictest gun control laws in the country, according to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. However, the group only gave the state’s gun control measures a “C” in a report last year.

In Arkansas and Tennessee, lawmakers have proposed requiring mental health professionals to alert police if a patient shows signs that suggest violence, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The Pennsylvania advisory panel recommended a similar law, said Shoemaker.

Mental health professionals in Pennsylvania already have a “duty to warn” a patient’s potential victims if they suspect violence, but penalties for failing to act carry only civil liability, Shoemaker said.

In New York, legislators after the Newtown shooting required mental health professionals to warn police of potential violence, and gave law enforcement the authority to seize weapons from a mentally ill person if there is probable cause they will use those weapons illegally. Goodman said that type of law may be one of the most effective.

Stephens’ bill is being packaged with a handful of other pieces of gun legislation in Harrisburg. Those include tougher restrictions — including a proposal to stiffen penalties for using firearms during crimes — as well as a measure to prevent cities from adopting gun control laws that are stricter than the state’s, said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus.

Democrats have proposed requiring background checks for private sales of long-guns — similar to the universal background check sought by the gun control lobby nationally and the Obama administration.

Goodman said the mental illness issue is important but can be a “red herring” that detracts from the root problem of easy access to firearms.

In many states, gun buyers can find loopholes to acquire weapons without a background check.

In Pennsylvania, a private sale of a handgun must be completed in front of a licensed dealer, so a background check can take place. But no such provision exists for rifles or other long-guns.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, The Meadville Tribune, The New Castle News, The Sharon Herald and The Sunbury Daily Item.

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