As part of a re-examination of Maryland state laws on firearms and the mentally ill, a task force has recommended that the state should require mental health professionals to contact police if an individual seems dangerous. The policy, if it becomes law, could lead to new gun seizures.
In the wake of last year’s mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo., states across the country are considering bills to reduce gun violence. Legislators’ solutions range from requiring background checks for private gun sales to taxing bullets.
Maryland is one of 38 states that either require or authorize the reporting of some mental health information to a database for firearm purchase background checks. Only California has a law mandating psychotherapists to communicate with police about potentially dangerous patients who might also own guns.
Unlike the California law, the Maryland task force recommendation includes a broader swath of health care professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, social workers, addiction treatment counselors, educators, case managers and probation agents.
It is already against federal law to sell or transfer guns or ammunition to someone who a court or other legal authority has deemed “mentally defective.” This prohibition includes people who are a danger to themselves or others, people who have been committed by a legal authority to a mental health institution involuntarily and people who a court finds to be legally insane.
Theoretically, licensed gun sellers would learn that someone was prohibited from owning a gun because of mental illness during a background check. In practice, many states do not require complete reporting to FBI or state databases for background checks, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In April 2012 the Maryland General Assembly appointed a group of law enforcement and public health professionals to review gun control policies related to people with mental illness.
The report included nine recommendations, such as further study of the link between mental illness and violence, expanding and standardizing police crisis intervention teams and formalizing a petition process for individuals to challenge their firearm prohibitions.
In California psychotherapists must report to local law enforcement if their patients are a danger to themselves or others. If a police investigation confirms the psychotherapist’s assessment, they notify the individual that they can’t own a gun. In cases where a person doesn’t give up the firearm voluntarily, an officer visits the home and confiscates the weapon.
Existing academic research convinced the Maryland group not to target people with mental illness exclusively, said Patrick Dooley, chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and a task force co-chair.
“Mental illness alone is not a significant factor that results in an increased propensity of violence,” Dooley said.
To the extent that the group did find evidence of a link between violent behavior and mental illness, the correlation was strongest when a person suffered from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, and experienced other compounding problems, including unemployment and drug abuse.
The task force targeted individuals making specific threats deemed credible by mental health professionals. In the Maryland report, the co-chairs said they wanted to find ways of better protecting the public from dangerous individuals without subjecting people with mental illness to “undue discrimination and stigma.”
“I think it does strike a good balance,” said Dan Martin, public policy director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland and a member of the task force. He pointed out that anyone who professionals determine to be potentially violent would fall under the recommended policy, not just those with mental illness.
“Overall, the Maryland report is pretty thoughtful,” said Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs at National Alliance on Mental Illness. “That one provision (on reporting patients), obviously, is raising some eyebrows.”
Honberg said he hoped any eventual law based on the recommendations would give clear guidance to mental health professionals about circumstances that should trigger a report to police. He also said any policy should protect the privacy of the person in question so that sensitive information wouldn’t be shared with anyone outside of police.
“We want to make sure it doesn’t have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to seek help when they need it,” he said.
So far, pro-gun rights groups aren’t opposing the report’s recommendations.
“Our position has always been that people who have been adjudicated as mentally defective or deemed to be a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.