By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun
11:10 PM EST, January 2, 2013
A state task force studying gun access laws for people with mental illnesses has proposed authorizing police to seize firearms from individuals deemed a credible threat to themselves or others.
Such seizures, the panel said Wednesday, would take place after law enforcement "substantiated" reports from mental health providers, social workers and other professionals.
The proposal is among nine recommendations by a task force convened months before December's mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that sparked a nationwide debate on gun control and access to mental health services.
The shooting renewed focus on those issues in Maryland, though it was unclear whether the gun-seizure proposal or other recommendations would get attention from state lawmakers already poised to consider an assault weapons ban and limits on the size of magazine clips.
Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the state Senate committee that deals with gun legislation, noted that while the concept of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people may have popular appeal, the details of such a proposal raise thorny legal questions.
"All by itself, it makes total sense, right? We don't want mentally ill people running around with guns," said Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. But, he added, "I'm not sure that there's a state in the country that has a process equal to the task."
The 17-member task force, created by the General Assembly, was charged with examining Maryland's laws that prohibit gun purchases by some people who have been hospitalized for mental illnesses. In particular, the panel was asked to look at whether the laws effectively protect the public, safeguard civil rights, and give law enforcement appropriate access to mental health records. And it was asked to recommend whether the access laws should be stricter.
The panel did not answer those questions. Patrick Dooley, task force co-chair and chief of staff at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said members found insufficient data to suggest that mentally ill people should for that reason alone be denied access to firearms.
"There wasn't that overwhelmingly strong connection," Dooley said. "We chose instead to focus on people who are making credible threats." The panel included law enforcement officials, gun-rights advocates, mental health experts, attorneys and policy experts.
The gun-seizure proposal would depart from existing practices in Maryland that appear to set a higher bar for confiscating firearms, according to the report.
The report offered no detail on what would constitute a credible threat, though the task force suggested that guns be confiscated for up to two weeks until a judge could determine whether a seizure was appropriate. If a judge rules that guns should remain confiscated, the name of the person from whom they were seized would be added to a registry of people prohibited from owning or buying firearms.
Gun-rights advocates bristled at the suggestion that a police investigation was enough to justify confiscating weapons from people who may not have a history of violence or commitment to a mental health facility.
"The only people you affect by going overboard on legislation to restrict Second Amendment rights are the law-abiding citizens," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican on Frosh's committee. "You're never going to know if a criminal has a gun until you catch him with it."
In recent years, other gun-surrender measures faced opposition. A proposal to require judges to order guns to be confiscated in some domestic-violence cases failed in 2008. It passed in 2009 after protections for gun owners were added to the legislation.
Maryland police can already confiscate guns in certain situations that involve drug crimes or domestic violence, Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. A 2008 federal court ruling based on a Gaithersburg case gave legal protection to police who seize weapons when a threat seems immediate, Shipley said.
Other suggestions by the task force include:
•Preventing someone without immediate access to guns from purchasing them if he or she is deemed a credible threat.
•Mandatory reporting of threats by mental health professionals and others.
•More mental health training for police officers.
•More education on firearm laws for mental health providers.
•Establishing mental health crisis teams similar to one Montgomery County.
•Using revenue from gun permits and licenses to pay for training.
•Crafting a way for people who lose access to guns to get them back.
•Additional studies to look at the prevalence of mental illness among criminals as well as links among substance abuse, mental health and violence.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
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