Joining the ranks of 42 other states, Rhode Island passed legislation that requires the reporting of information about individuals with serious mental health issues to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Rhode Island Bill H7939, signed into law by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee on July 3, was constructed and narrowly focused in order to protect individual rights.
The new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015, was a direct response to the tragic shootings in Newton, Conn. It requires that Rhode Island submit to NICS the names of individuals who have been adjudicated in district court because of mental health issues, involuntarily committed for treatment and determined by the court to be a danger to themselves or others.
Massachusetts is the only New England state that has not passed similar legislation.
“We’re trying to prevent horrible tragedies, like Sandy Hook, from ever happening again,” says Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, (D-Jamestown), the lead House sponsor of the bill. “Tragedies like those shootings really raise public consciousness. My role was to make sure we kept the tenor of the conversation on a real even keel without a lot of emotion.
“We didn’t want any unintended consequences from discouraging someone from seeking mental health treatment for fear of having to relinquish their right to gun ownership.”
Toward that end, the 20-member Behavioral Health Firearms Safety Task Force was created. The committee comprised a range of stakeholders, including members from the attorney general’s office, police, mental health advocates and gun owners as well as behavioral health and substance abuse professionals.
“Both the governor and House and Senate leaders wanted to make sure we took a very comprehensive and thorough journey through the emotion of the issues,” says task force member Craig Stenning, director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals in Rhode Island.
“They separated the issues into gun control itself and the issues associated with whether the violence was connected to mental illness. I was pleased that we weren’t talking a quick and reactionary approach to it.
“It’s incorrect to assume that people with mental illness are inherently violent. All the evidence is quite to the contrary. Unfortunately in two or three of the more publicized events, there was an alleged connection to mental illness.”
Information sent to NICS includes only the individual’s name, date of birth, gender and ethnicity. No medical or personal information is disclosed. In addition, the law contains provisions by which people can contest their inclusion in the NICS database. They have the right to appeal at a closed hearing after three years. A successful appeal would strike their names from the database.
Ruggiero notes that there was virtually no opposition to the bill, both internally and externally, even from gun rights advocates. “A lot of people thought we should go a lot further, that it should include voluntary [commitments],” she says. “But we heard testimony from people from Connecticut. They told us it can be difficult when people might want to voluntarily seek mental health treatment [and fear that their] their name is being reported to NICS.
“That’s the unintended consequence we did not want. We want people to seek mental health treatment.”
Noting that “there’s a real delicate balance between gun ownership, public safety and mental health,” Rep. Ruggiero is satisfied that the issue has been addressed in proper fashion. “No one wants someone with a serious mental illness who is dangerous to have access to a weapon.”
By Howard Newman