By Douglas Moser
---- — A new proposal in the Massachusetts Legislature would require mental health professionals to report people who may be a danger to themselves or others into a state database to prevent them from obtaining a firearm.
State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, filed the legislation, which would require those health care providers to update, verify and remove the names on the list every year and would limit access to the list only to local police reviewing an application for a new or renewed firearms permit and to the commander of the state police.
Gun rights advocates and mental health groups last week did not take a stand on the proposal, but said it is a good place to start a conversation to address the sticky issue of identifying people with mental illnesses who should not have access to guns while still protecting privacy and Second Amendment rights, a national conversation sparked by the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December.
Campbell said she participated in two hearings on the bill, one in Worcester last week and one on Cape Cod, and gathered input from people with a range of points of view.
“The two salient points on both sides were, let’s enforce the laws we have,” she said. “Felons caught in the act of a crime with a firearm are not receiving penalties in some cases. Cases are being dismissed. The other aspect is to figure out something else for additional tools to prevent those with serious mental illness from possessing a firearm.”
Campbell’s bill, which has seven co-sponsors, would create a database overseen by the Department of Criminal Justice to hold names flagged by mental health professionals. Those health providers, who in their professional opinion believe a person is a danger to himself or others, would report the name to the database and include a specific period of time for which the person should not have a firearm.
That database could only be accessed by local police officers reviewing a new or renewal firearm license application and by the colonel of the state police. The database would not be public record.
Mental health professionals would be required to review the names they place in the database annually to remove people who should no longer be flagged.
Campbell said she did not intend for someone with a temporary issue, such as severe depression that can be overcome, to be flagged for life.
Someone who believes their firearm application was inappropriately denied for mental health reasons can appeal to a seven-member review board comprised of three licensed mental health professionals, three members of law enforcement and one licensed firearms owner, according to the bill. All members must be Massachusetts residents.
Once the board’s decision is made, it can be appealed to district court.
The law also would immunize mental health professionals from lawsuits related to reporting to the database.
Mental health and gun rights advocates interviewed last said it was a good place to start the conversation.
Tim O’Leary, deputy director of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, said he appreciated Campbell’s approach.
Specifically, he said the immunization of professionals is critical because a doctor or provider in fear of a lawsuit may over report to protect herself. He also supports restricting access to the database and requiring a periodic review of the names, both of which are included in the bill.
However, he and Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, a gun-rights advocacy group based in Northborough, said they would prefer names go into the database only after a judge finds someone is a danger to himself or others, or if a person is involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
“My biggest hesitation is that it doesn’t require adjudication and may discourage people from seeking treatment,” O’Leary said.
He also said people should be notified when their name is reported, so errors can be cleared up and appeals can be made. Campbell’s bill starts the appeal process only when a firearms permit application is rejected because of listing in the database.
Wallace said another of his concerns is a mental health care provider’s own personal beliefs about guns coloring their professional judgment.
“I get a little bit leery when we’re asking folks to report other citizens that they shouldn’t be able to possess firearms because then you get into people’s personal views,” he said.
Mental health professionals and advocates are uncertain how, and even whether, to address this issue because of a fear of stigmatizing people with mental illness, O’Leary said.
“For too long people in the mental health community said anything that mentions us is stigmatizing and we’re opposed. That doesn’t work,” he said. “We need to be at the table when people are discussing mental health. People getting a gun and going out and shooting somebody is more stigmatizing than a registry.”
O’Leary said he liked Campbell’s approach better than other proposals, one of which would require people applying for a firearms permit to allow access to all mental health records. An instance of mental health treatment for issues like postpartum depression or counseling after witnessing a traumatic event should not prevent someone from enjoying their rights years after the issues have been treated, he said.
Private mental health facilities should also be required to submit names, though O’Leary and Wallace said the facilities have resisted doing so in the past.
Additionally, states should be careful in how they limit or condition a person’s ability to obtain a firearm, particularly after a 2008 Supreme Court decision declared that individuals have a constitutionally protected right to own a gun.
“You can put conditions on a car, but if the state wants to put conditions on health care treatment waivers, I don’t think you can condition a (Constitutional) right in that kind of broad sweeping way,” he said.
Campbell said she has heard from gun owners during the two hearings on her proposal and came away believing many want thoughtful restrictions on access to guns by the mentally ill in a way that does not overly burden the general population.
“One thing that came across clearly to me in these hearings is that lawful gun owners want some mechanisms where those suffering from mental illness is not allowed to purchase a weapon,” she said.
She also said she is willing to discuss aspects of the proposal, including professionals reporting versus reporting only after adjudication or commitment.
Wallace said he met briefly with Campbell and had a positive conversation and planned to work with her on the proposal. “You have to start the discussion somewhere, and that’s what these bills are,” he said.
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