R.I. Gun Control Legislation Plugs Holes

Last week Governor Lincoln Chafee and some legislative leaders proposed gun legislation to plug the holes in existing laws. Chief among the provisions are the requirement for background checks for the commercial sale of firearms, bans on semiautomatic assault weapons with specific features, as well as gun magazines that hold more than ten rounds. The legislation is common sense, although there is bound to be a lot of obfuscation about how these measures impede gun owners ‘rights.
One provision of the law will set up a commission to study how to fix the state’s background check system, by including mental health and substance abuse records. The fact that Rhode Island does not submit these records now means that people with serious mental health problems can purchase guns. Mental health advocates fear that the gun debate will further stigmatize those who are mentally ill. While this is a real concern, recent mass shootings have inextricably linked gun violence and mental health. Further, these professionals warn that having any gun ownership forfeiture will impede veterans and others from seeking mental health counseling, another undesirable result. Delaware, however, recently passed a comprehensive gun bill that managed to avoid these unintended consequences.
In Delaware, the mental health notifications which are submitted to the database are solely for those who are involuntarily committed or who are adjudicated as mentally ill following a trial. The thinking is that if a person has to be petitioned into treatment as opposed to going voluntarily, he lacks insight into his own condition and risks exercising poor judgment. Correspondingly, a voluntary admission is deemed evidence of insight and someone who is not likely to be a danger. Remember, folks who are involuntarily committed have due process hearings where evidence is adduced from doctors and other professionals besides family and friends. Perhaps a prerequisite requirement that the person has a penchant for violence as part of the adjudication order should  be required before a person’s mental health records are put into the database.
Also in Delaware’s new law, a person would be added to the registry for pleading not guilty for reason of insanity and have that adjudication plus a finding that he continues to be a danger to others and thereby is committed to an institution. Virtually all such  cases are criminal in nature and involve violence, so this is an apt filter for addition into the database.
Another area of exploration is when a mental health professional thinks a person is capable or apt to murder somebody. Right now the law requires the professional to warn the person to whom the anger is directed as to the danger. Perhaps there can be a triggering process of adding the violent perpetrator to the background check system.
Clearly, there has to be better access to mental health care, but provision of services is not the sole solution. The above proposals can minimize some explosive situations. There will never be a perfect solution but that should not stop efforts to initiate a program that could help prevent gun crimes.


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