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Monday, January 27, 2014

Firearms Safety Task Force reviews draft report

Panel recommends limited reporting to federal database of those involuntarily committed and deemed at risk for violence
STATE HOUSE – The 20-member task force that is studying the nexus of gun rights and mental health law today recommended that Rhode Island begin submitting limited additional information about mental health actions to the national database used to screen gun buyers.

After studying the situation this fall and winter, the Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force, led by co-chairwomen Rep. Deborah Ruggiero and Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey, reviewed the report it will submit to the General Assembly detailing the many limitations the state faces in widening reporting of mental health or behavioral health records under health care privacy laws.

Rhode Island already submits relevant criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and requires all gun purchasers to submit to a NICS check to ensure they are not disqualified from owning a gun. The task force was asked to discuss and make recommendations about whether the state should also be contributing information about known mental health or substance abuse problems that are not associated with any criminal prosecution.

Federal and state health privacy laws ban health care agencies, such as the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, from disclosing mental health records. 

However, testimony before the task force indicated that state law could be changed to allow the court system to submit limited information to NICS. 

District Court adjudicates involuntary commitment of individuals to mental health care, and the task force recommends that the state adopt a new law allowing the court to forward to NICS the names of those committed in such a manner if they are also deemed to pose a risk of violence to themselves or others so they can be included in the database of those who may not buy guns. 

Those who seek mental health treatment on their own would not be affected.

The report suggests adopting a statute similar to, but narrower than Massachusetts’, to limit reporting of involuntary commitment to only those who pose a substantial risk of violence to themselves or others, not those who are committed but determined to represent a low risk of violence. 

It also stipulates that only enough information to identify the individual – name, date of birth, gender and ethnicity– should be submitted, not any information about the nature of the person’s mental health issue.

“Obviously, we can’t prevent every tragedy, but we should be trying to prevent the arming of people who have already been brought to the court’s attention because they are seriously mentally ill, violent and dangerous. The key is to strike the balance between public safety and the individual’s right to privacy and freedom. With this change, we would no longer be turning a blind eye when a person is so ill and violent that they’ve had to be committed, but we are also allowing the minimum intrusion possible on that person’s privacy, and not intruding at all on those who seek treatment for mental illness or substance abuse on their own. Nothing will be a panacea, but this is a sharply focused improvement in preventing gun violence at the hands of the mentally ill,” said Senator Cool Rumsey (D-Dist. 34, Exeter, Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich).

The report indicates that if the General Assembly does indeed adopt legislation allowing the submission of mental health records to NICS, it must set up a system through which a person may seek relief of his or her disqualification. Federal funding is available to support the relief board process, which could be handled either through a new panel created for that purpose, or through the courts. 

The report favors making the relief board part of the court system, but says that more work will need to be done by the General Assembly to determine specifics about the composition of the board, and disqualification in general. 

For example, the Assembly would need to decide whether relief hearings will be public or private, how long a person should be disqualified from owning a gun based on specific mental health issues and what the mechanism should be for notifying individuals that their name has been sent to NICS for disqualification.

The report includes a recommendation that information on substance abuse collected outside of criminal proceedings not be reported to NICS, in part due to legal risk and also because of the potential chilling effect such reporting could have on individuals’ will to seek treatment. The task force did not learn of any other states that provide non-criminal records of substance abuse to NICS.

“One of the recommendations is that Rhode Island submit mental health data for someone who is adjudicated to be dangerous to him or herself or others. What we don’t want is the unintended consequence of discouraging someone who needs mental health treatment from getting it because they are afraid they will be banned from owning a gun or that their name will be published on some list somewhere. We believe we’re striking a balance that avoids disincentives for people to seek treatment, while still preventing those who are extremely mentally ill and violent from buying guns. 
At the end of the day, whether you’re a member of the National Rifle Association or the Parent Teacher Association, no one wants those who are seriously mentally ill and violent to have access to guns,” said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown.

Additionally, the report includes a recommendation that the General Assembly review state laws involving weapons and mental health to ensure that the definitions of terms like “mental incompetent” or “habitual drunkard” are clearly defined and consistent throughout state law.

The task force will submit the report to the General Assembly. Legislation would also need to be submitted to enact the changes recommended within the report.