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Feds, Florida Attempt to Tighten Mental-Health Registry to Combat Gun Violence

March 14, 2013 - 7:00pm

When it comes to gun control, Congress has got a lot on its plate. Not only are legislators trying to place restrictions on firearms, but theyre also attempting to overhaul mental-health legislation to place restrictions on gun ownership. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is one lawmaker leading the way to mental-health reform.

Last week, Graham introduced a bill that would add the mentally ill to a national database and block them from purchasing firearms. We're trying to fix a problem that most people in America would be astonished exists, explained the South Carolina Republican. There is a lot of emotion around the gun violence issue, but I'm hopeful this is one area where we can find tremendous bipartisan support. Grahams bill was backed by several Republican and Democratic senators.

But, while the federal government cant force states to report severe cases of mental illness, some Florida legislators are proposing their own mental-health measures. State Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, filed legislation similar to Grahams that would prohibit the mentally ill from purchasing guns in Florida.

HB 1335 outlines a broad reform in the reporting of Floridas mentally ill. It attempts to close a loophole in the Baker Act that permits those with mental illnesses to voluntarily commit themselves for treatment, thereby allowing them to avoid an involuntary commitment process. The trick is, once committed, they quickly check themselves out of the treatment facility. Their maneuver means their records dont exist in the National Instant Check System (NICS), so they cant be prohibited from purchasing guns. NICS is a background check system that allows gun dealers to determine whether an individual is eligible to purchase a firearm.

Watsons bill would prevent people from taking advantage of this gap. The bill would prevent mentally ill individuals from purchasing firearms if a physician determined that they were a danger to themselves and to others. When a physician deems an individual as dangerous, he or she would file a certificate of voluntary commitment for treatment; if the patient does not agree to treatment, then the physician would file a certificate for an involuntary petition for treatment.

The individual would receive written notice of the certification once deemed dangerous, and that person would agree to accept voluntary commitment with full understanding that he or she will not be allowed to purchase firearms or apply for a concealed weapons permit. Those that disagree with having their gun ownership privileges revoked can refuse to sign, and they can be involuntarily committed.

The gun-control measure would also ensure that NICS records are updated in a timely fashion. Information from the physician would be sent to the county court, then to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for submission to NICS if the entry is approved by the judge. In short, HB 1335 would attempt to make reporting of mental illness mandatory and limit access to firearms.

But, while Graham and Watsons proposals may close loopholes in the background-check system, they may not completely eradicate the underlying problem of illegal firearm purchases in the United States.

According to the Bureau of Justice, a staggering 40 percent of guns are obtained illegally on the streets, and another 40 percent of guns are acquired through friends and family. A recently released survey by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis estimates that around 30,000 to 40,000 illegal gun purchases are attempted every year.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would make illegally purchasing a gun for someone else a felony. The process, which is known as a straw purchase, is just one of the ways that guns are obtained illegally in the United States.

Some Republicans have questioned the bill. My concern is this bill is a solution in search of a problem, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. I have a hard time explaining to constituents how passing more laws that will go unenforced makes them any safer.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned that if gun restrictions dont lessen violence, the government may begin confiscating weapons. Today, gun violence rates are the lowest level in 50 years, said the Iowa Republican, The majority of the committee seems determined to impose more restrictions on law-abiding citizens.

On Thursday, his committee approved an assault-weapons ban. The ban will now be heard on the Senate floor, and is expected to face heavy opposition from Republicans and gun-rights advocates. The bill was approved 10-8, with no Republicans voting in favor.

Allison Nielsen writes special to Sunshine State News.

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