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Gun Restrictions For Mentally Ill The Focus Of Mass. Debate

BOSTON — New state standards for firearms access by the mentally ill are expected to be the centerpiece of the recommendations and resulting legislation from a gun control task force that holds its final meeting Friday.

But mental illness accounts for just 3 to 5 percent of the violent crimes in America. Multiple academic reports say other risk factors are far more indicative of violent potential — being young and male, poor, a drug addict or, even more, an alcohol abuser, and having a previous history of violence.

Yet every time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, attention swings quickly to the shooter’s mental health and ability to access guns. The often-charged public discourse is a trial for Cambridge resident Valerie Hammond, whose 19-year-old son is bipolar.

“That is just, particularly, the less-informed media’s way of finding a boogeyman,” she said.

Hammond says it is necessary to restrict firearms access to people who are mentally ill and potentially violent, but for her the clamor about guns and the mentally ill seems unwarranted and sometimes unbearable.

“When a tragic event happens and the media throws the mentally ill under the bus and your child is mentally ill, it’s inexpressibly painful to know that your child or loved one has just been lumped in with the most terrible, horrible crime that makes his already-difficult life that much more difficult,” she said.

Recent events such as the Newtown shootings, the Tuscon shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the Navy Yard killings in Washington, D.C., have nonetheless given momentum to new efforts to tighten gun rules for the mentally ill.

Federal law already bars firearm ownership by someone who’s been committed involuntarily to a mental institution. And the law also prohibits gun ownership by someone a court has found to be “mentally defective” — a term in the law that some find offensive.

It’s one area of gun law where Massachusetts is seen as weak.  TWEET Natick state Rep. David Linsky, a legislative leader on gun issues, explains that when people buy guns from a federally licensed dealer, the FBI runs their names through a federal database.

“They match it up first with your criminal record and they match it up with who has been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility,” he said. “However, that database is only as good as the data that’s been submitted by the individual states.”

Privacy laws on the books in Massachusetts since 1970 have prohibited the state’s courts from sharing mental health adjudications with the feds.

“Massachusetts, incredibly, is only one of seven states in the country that doesn’t submit its mental health commitment data into the national database,” said Linksy, who has submitted one of several bills that would require reporting to that federal database.

Mental health advocates support that basic requirement, but Linsky wants to go further.

He wants applicants for state firearms licenses, which require approval by local police chiefs, to authorize police access to up to 20 years worth of mental health records. He would require health providers to turn the records over and based on those records, a chief would determine whether someone was suitable to own a firearm.

June Binney, a specialist in criminal justice for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness*, says that’s extreme.

“I don’t see at all how it’s connected to protecting the public, and I can definitely see how it would have a chilling effect on people seeking the services they need,” Binney said.

The gun control task force appointed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo in the wake of the Newtown shootings is looking at a range of models from other states.

Binney says although she shares Linsky’s goals, some of the other models strike a better balance between privacy and protection. Instead of trolling through histories for mental illness, she says local police should focus on temporary gun removals when it’s determined someone poses a threat.

“They know who has the licenses in their town. If they know there’s a gun in the home, they know that they’ve gotten a couple calls because a teenage kid has been drinking a lot, has been breaking stuff in the house, has been threatening their parents, get the gun out of the house,” Binney said. “It seems like it’s common sense. That’s the kind of police discretion we totally embrace.”

That kind of discretion is under consideration in Massachusetts, as are means of challenging such a decision in court. And two reports this month by a consortium of mental health researchers support the approach.

The researchers also say policy should focus on what they term “dangerousness.” That means including other, more-telling risk factors in state and federal bars against gun ownership — convictions for violent misdemeanors, recent temporary restraining orders and multiple DUIs or drug convictions.

Report contributor Dr. Paul Appelbaum says the current approach toward people with mental illness is “both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.”

Appelbaum, a national expert on guns and mental health and the former chief of psychiatry at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, points to recent research in Connecticut that shows the vast majority of mentally ill people there that are barred from federal licenses were not likely to commit violent crimes.

At the same time, most of the mentally ill who were likely to commit violent crimes would not be barred from federal licensure because they’d never been committed involuntarily and, as a result, would not be picked up by the federal background check.

“It sweeps up lots of people who are at no increased risk for violence and misses many people who, in fact, are likely to commit violent crimes in the future,” Appelbaum explained.

And when it comes to firearms and the mentally ill, Appelbaum emphasizes that the biggest risk of harm isn’t to others — it’s suicide. In 2011, nearly 20,000 Americans killed themselves with a gun. That’s twice the number of gun homicides.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly called the organization the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; it is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. We regret the error.

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  • Give_Me_Liberty_92

    “,…. get the gun out of the house,” Binney said.”

    It would help if the “experts” interviewed by the journalist -or the journalist himself!- had actually a minimal working knowledge of Massachusetts gun laws….(Law Enforcement Guide To Firearms Law by Glidden is a good start, journalist!)

    Under current law the chief of police already has basically unbridled discretion of pulling a license to carry (required to purchase handguns and keep them in one’s home) even when the licensee is not directly involved in any crime, but one of the members of the family living at his address is. [A thing that is already debatable, as you are punishing someone infringing his constitutional rights for the actions of someone else, and in a state where firearms storage laws should suffice to prevent unwanted access (a gun safe and a combination kept confidential should be sufficient)]. There is a long list of minor offenses, including misdemeanors that already disqualify licensing in Massachusetts (p. 207 to 213 of the above book), including anything the interviewees brought up in the piece.

    As for having the chief of police (or the firearms licensing captain in charge of the pre-licensing investigation) “studying” 20 years of mental health records with little more than (maybe) a sociology associate degree acquired at the local community college and no understanding of the nuances and degrees of mental illness as it relates to dangerousness of a practicing psychiatrist, and having Massachusetts legislators even considering such an obscenity is more telling of the local environment against lawful gun ownership (already extremely and arbitrarily restricted) than the wisdom of such ideas.

    In this state there is no attempt at finding a common ground and a reasonable approach to gun laws and ownership, just a generalized aversion to gun ownership, as if all the gun owners were extremists of the other party, not your fellow democrat neighbour. wrong.

    At some point we have to decide if we are a nation of laws, rational conversations or of fears, political grandstanding and abuse of power. Massachusetts has been leaning toward the latter for years now. Recent pending proposals just make things worse.

    • KLH

      So, 85% of suicide attempts by firearm are successful. So, 80% of white males choose a firearm to commit the act. So, 90% of suicides have a previously diagnosed serious mental illness:

      (http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=23041)

      So, 20k gun deaths a year have nothing to so with any of the sane legal gun owners, but they should still be required to jump through flaming hoops to make everyone else think further regulation will stop the next mass shooting that ends with the perp killing themselves as police roll-up?

  • HaroldAMaio

    New state standards for firearms access by the mentally ill is as insulting as:

    New state standards for firearms access by the Blacks, New state standards for firearms access by the Jews.

    • fun bobby

      oh don’t worry any increase to the already widely abused discretion of local police chiefs in licensing is sure to be used to deny minorities and women their civil rights and ability to protect themselves legally

  • HaroldAMaio

    June Binney, a specialist in criminal justice for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, says that’s extreme.
    That is not the organizations’ name.

  • fun bobby

    linsky can’t just do something sensible like follow federal law. he has to take it to an insane degree. its like he has no idea that the people who have the risk factors above don’t care what sort of restrictions he puts on legal ownership. I dare him to commission a study of the relative crime rates of legal gun permit holders vs the general public.

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