Bowing to pressure from some fellow Democrats in the legislature, Gov. Martin O'Malley has signaled a willingness to compromise on at least one element in the package of new gun restrictions he proposed in the aftermath of last year's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. And in a surprise, given the massive lobbying effort against his bill, the change actually makes it better. Aides now say the governor will support a provision to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people that is even tougher than one presently on the books.
The amendment under consideration would ban gun sales to people who have been involuntarily committed to a public or private mental health facility for any length of time. Under current law, only people who have been committed to an institution for 30 consecutive days or more can have their gun ownership rights revoked. Mr. O'Malley had sought to maintain the essence of that standard and to require that a court declare someone who had been involuntarily committed to be a danger to himself or others before stripping gun ownership rights. He also sought to increase reporting requirements so that such information turns up more regularly in background checks. The proposed change to the bill would make it closer to the law Virginia law passed in 2007 after the school massacre at Virginia Tech, which bans anyone involuntarily committed to a mental institution from buying a gun.
The details of the new measure are not yet clear, but banning gun purchases by those who have been involuntarily committed makes sense. The current law doesn't specifically link a prohibition on gun ownership to the question of whether a prospective buyer is a danger. People can spend time in a mental health facility for a variety of reasons, from depression to eating disorders, without ever being a danger to themselves or others. On the other hand, under Maryland law, involuntary commitment requires mental health professionals and the courts to make a determination that a person is a danger. (Under both existing law and Mr. O'Malley's proposal, those who are barred for mental health reasons from owning a firearm can petition to have their rights restored.)
Even if the proposed measure passes in Maryland, it would still be significantly weaker than a law recently enacted in New York, which requires mental health professionals to report patients they believe may be dangerous to authorities. That law, signed recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would also authorize police to prevent such patients from buying guns and confiscate firearms they already own. That law has raised significant concerns among mental health professionals about whether it will discourage people from getting treatment.
One of the thorniest issues in the debate regarding gun violence is that while many of the most horrific mass shootings the nation has experienced have been committed by people suffering from mental illness, the vast majority people with mental health issues never become violent, especially if they are in treatment. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to predict which people among the small minority of those who are deemed to pose a danger to others will actually commit a violent crime. Rather, the most likely benefit of the kind of restriction Mr. O'Malley is now considering is to reduce suicides, which make up between 30 percent and 40 percent of all gun deaths in Maryland.
But as part of the broader package of reforms Mr. O'Malley is proposing, these restrictions could begin to chip away at Maryland's tragically high rates of gun violence. In addition to tougher restrictions on gun purchases by mentally ill people, Governor O'Malley is seeking to ban the sale in Maryland of military-style assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as to require prospective gun buyers to obtain a license and undergo firearms safety training before they could legally own a gun. These are common sense measures that enjoy broad support among Marylanders — a poll this week by gun control advocates found 81 percent support for the licensing measure, likely the most important part of the governor's bill from the perspective of reducing gun violence in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The governor's package recognizes that citizens have a right to own guns but also that the state has a responsibility to do what it can to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands, and this proposed change only strengthens it.