2014-01-30 / News

Task force recommends limiting gun ownership

The 20-member task force that is studying the link between gun rights and mental health recommended that Rhode Island begin submitting behavioral information projected gun buyers to the national database.

The joint legislative panel adopted its report last week and was submitted to the General Assembly. The report details the limitations the state faces in regards to privacy laws and disclosing health records.

Rhode Island already submits criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and requires all gun purchasers to submit to the federal check. The task force is charged with recommending whether the state should also include information about mental health or substance abuse that are not associated with any criminal prosecution.

While privacy laws ban healthcare agencies from disclosing records regarding mental health, testimony indicated that state law could be changed to allow the court system to submit such information. The panel recommended a new law allowing the court to forward the names of people deemed to pose a risk of violence so they can be federally excluded from buying guns.

Those who seek treatment on their own would not be affected.

“What we don’t want is the unintended consequence of discouraging someone who needs mentalhealth treatment from getting it because they are afraid they will be banned from owning a gun or that their name will be published on some list somewhere,” said state Rep. Deb Ruggiero, a Jamestowner who co-chaired the task force. “We believe we’re striking a balance that avoids disincentives for people to seek treatment, while still preventing those who are extremely mentally ill and violent from buying guns. At the end of the day, whether you’re a member of the National Rifle Association or the Parent Teacher Association, no one wants those who are seriously mentally ill and violent to have access to guns.”

The report suggests adopting a statute that would only allow the courts to disclose information of people who pose a substantial threat to themselves or others, not those who represent a low risk of violence. It also stipulates that only enough information to identify the individual – name, date of birth and gender – should be submitted.

Additionally, the report includes a recommendation that the General Assembly review state laws involving weapons and mental health to ensure that the definitions of terms like “mental incompetent,” “drug addict” or “habitual drunkard” are clearly defined and consistent throughout state law. The task force’s review of state laws uncovered inconsistencies and undefined terms.

“Obviously, we can’t prevent every tragedy, but we should be trying to prevent the arming of people who have already been brought to the court’s attention because they are seriously mentally ill, violent and dangerous,” said Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey, who co-chaired the task force. “The key is to strike the balance between public safety and the individual’s right to privacy.”

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