Mental health advocates wary of Md. gun control proposals

Darci Marchese,

WASHINGTON – Maryland is among many states taking a closer look at gun laws in light of the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

However, National Alliance on Mental Illness — the largest advocacy group in the U.S. for people with mental illness — has some serious concerns about the direction of the proposed gun control bills.

In Maryland, people who are involuntarily ordered to a psychiatric facility for at least 30 consecutive days cannot purchase weapons unless they receive approval from a physician or psychiatrist.

In some bills under consideration in Maryland, lawmakers are proposing to eliminate the 30-day threshold and replace it with “any day” spent in a psychiatric facility.

After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Virginia passed a similar bill that prohibits anyone involuntarily committed to a public or private mental health facility, for any length of time, from purchasing a gun.

Under a Maryland proposal by state Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, patients who are admitted to a hospital for an emergency mental health evaluation on the recommendation of a doctor — and then agree to go to a mental health facility — would not be able to purchase guns.

Zirkin’s bill includes prohibitions for individuals who voluntarily seek help for mental health issues.

“That’s the group we need to target,” Zirkin said during a hearing on gun laws in Annapolis last week.

About 60 million people experience a mental health condition every year in the U.S., according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The nonprofit says mental illness affects at least one in four adults.

Ron Honberg, the director for policy and legal affairs for National Alliance on Mental Illness, opposes Zirkin’s bill, saying it takes away gun rights from people who voluntarily seek treatment.

“I’m very concerned that that’s going to have a further chilling effect on the willingness of people to seek treatment and could ultimately prove to be counterproductive,” Honberg says.

“The last thing we want to do is discourage people from seeking mental health care when they most need it,” he adds.

Honberg points out that many Americans receive mental health care, and the majority of them aren’t violent. However, he says the current proposals don’t take into account people who have committed violent acts in the past, such as domestic violence.

“They include people who are not at all at risk of violence and also under-broad in the sense that they may not apply to people who are at risk of committing violent acts,” Honberg says.

Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, says lawmakers need to proceed with caution.

“It’s clear the combination of firearms and mental illness is combustible, and the public is expecting us to deal with it,” he said at a recent hearing. “We should absolutely err on the side of public safety.”

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