June 1st, 2013

Proposals aim to keep guns from people with mental illness

Massachusetts gun control proposals to close background check system gaps focus largely on preventing mass shootings like those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. They also raise privacy concerns in a state that currently does not submit mental health information to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Gov. Deval Patrick’s comprehensive gun control bill would bring Massachusetts into compliance with the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, the federal law passed after the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. One provision would require courts to transmit mental health adjudications and orders to the state’s criminal justice information system to forward to the federal government for use in firearms licensing. The courts would specify if a person’s commitment is based on a finding that they are “an alcoholic, a substance abuser or both.”

Another bill by Rep. David P. Linsky (D-Natick) would require all gun permit applicants to waive their right to privacy and disclose mental health treatment or services obtained for the previous 20 years.

Patrick’s bill proposes $5 million for Department of Mental Health programs, including training for teachers to recognize symptoms of mental illness in students, crisis intervention training for first responders and access to psychiatric consultations for pediatricians with concerns about young patients.

“We’re very grateful the governor recognizes that safe communities depend on having adequate access to mental health resources,” says DMH Commissioner Marcia Fowler, M.A., J.D.

Fowler says DMH receives 10,000 annual requests from local police chiefs conducting gun applicant background checks. Because Massachusetts has no statutory mechanism in place to send mental health information to NICS, out of state gun dealers can’t access Massachusetts records during background checks.

DMH provides information on people admitted to its inpatient facilities but has no authority to collect information on patients admitted to private psychiatric facilities. In 2012, DMH facilities admitted 1,700 patients, of whom 1,400 were involuntarily committed. But many more patients are treated at private hospitals: 74,000 private admissions were recorded in 2011 with 811 being involuntary.

Under Linksy’s bill, violators failing to report mental health treatment records could be charged with a felony and face up to five years in prison. Linsky says health information would be destroyed within 30 days following the issuing of a license or the outcome of any appeal.

“My intent here is not to deny a firearm license for someone who legitimately wants one and went through a minor issue some years ago, counseling for divorce or a job loss, something minor,” Linsky says.

In a state where the suicide rate is 2.7 times higher than homicides, both Fowler and Linksy acknowledge the two bills could keep firearms out of the hands of those who would harm themselves rather than others. Firearms were the state’s second most common suicide method (26 percent) after hanging (49 percent), according to 2011 Massachusetts Department of Public Health Injury Surveillance Program preliminary data.

“We want to tread carefully on taking measures that will have any type of chilling effect on people’s access to mental health services,” Fowler says. “The biggest thing we can do to make our communities safe is to ensure that people are aware that treatment is effective, people do recover from mental illness and that it’s okay to access mental health services.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts has “major problems” with requirements to share up to 20 years of mental health records, which would further stigmatize people with mental illness, Executive Director Laurie Martinelli, M.P.H., J.D. says.

“We think that a history of violence should be the deciding factor and not whether someone has mental illness. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, have never committed a violent act and never will commit a violent act. They are mostly the victims of violence,” Martinelli says.

By Janine Weisman

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