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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. 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.
This program aired on December 13, 2013.
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