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State studies mental illness and firearms

The relationship between severe mental illness and gun control is multifaceted. It can be filled with misconceptions and, sometimes, misinformation.

It requires a delicate balance - and one that Maryland officials are attempting to achieve. A state-mandated task force to study the access of regulated firearms to mentally ill individuals released Jan. 2 consisted of a host of recommendations, varying from increasing information available for background checks and adding more training for health-care providers and police.

And Gov. Martin O'Malley laid the foundation at a Friday news conference for legislation that will be submitted to the Maryland General Assembly Monday aimed at reforming the system, such as timely data-sharing, better and earlier treatment and the creation of a new Center for Excellence on Early Intervention for Serious Mental Illness.

A catalyst

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A shooting inside a dark theater in Aurora, Col., that left 12 dead and many wounded sparked a renewed conversation on the issue. As medical records surfaced, documentation showed that James Holmes, who is accused of the killings, had recent visits with a psychiatrist.

Inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a Portland mall, there were more shootings. On Dec. 14, gunman Adam Lanza took his mother's guns and went on a shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing 20 children. Lanza was reportedly on the autism spectrum.

Thus, the mental health and firearms conversation gained traction once again just weeks before the Maryland General Assembly was set to reconvene. And the task force that the general assembly created last year released its report Jan. 2, a week before the legislative session started.

Backing up background checks

Four forms sit on the counter of Brownstone Trading Company, a gun shop in Westminster.

Three are for Maryland State Police and one is for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

With some basic information and a signature, a gun owner authorizes the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to disclose information to the state police about mental disorders, previous violent behavior and if the individual has been confined to a mental health facility for more than 30 days.

There's typically an about 10 day waiting period while Maryland State Police Licensing Division performs the background check. However, a recent influx of applications has created a backlog, and it now takes about three weeks, according to Bradley Vosburgh, Brownstone Trading Company owner.

An individual can buy a regulated firearm once a month - unless a person has a collector permit - and a background check and a $10 application fee are required each time.

In 2012, the Maryland State Police Licensing Division received 69,606 such applications to purchase regulated firearms. About 1,512 of those requests were unapproved, according to the state police's licensing division.

The task force made several recommendations that would allow the Maryland State Police access to additional material for background checks. And there's a fine line between too little and too much, said Gayle Jordan-Randolph, DHMH deputy secretary for behavioral health and disabilities and task force member.

"The balance is what is the critical data that needs to be captured and identified and that is important to report," said Jordan-Randolph, "and I think one of the take-home messages that the department articulated with the task force is the most consistent predictor of violent behavior is a history of violent behavior, so that should be one of the critical factors we need to identify."

State police currently access the individuals who have involuntarily been committed through a legal process to a state facility for more than 30 days. But this does not include information for those who have been committed to a private institution for more 30 days - a gap the task force recommended closing, according to Jordan-Randolph.

Currently, if local law enforcement substantiate a threat of violence against oneself or others, the memo doesn't reach state police. The task force's report recommended officers submit a copy of an investigation to the Maryland State Police Licensing Division, so such information would be available for background checks.

Connecting the two

It's time to bolster statewide law enforcement mental health training, the report stated. And that's an initiative Carroll County started more than a year ago, according to Lt. Joshua Bronson, a McDaniel College Campus Safety officer.

Officers receive minimal training in recognizing the symptoms of severe mental illness and how to interact with those exhibiting such behavior, "which poses a degree of danger for both the individual and law enforcement," the report states.

On the flip side, health-care professionals aren't always knowledgeable on firearms law and the requirement to report dangerous individuals, the report states.

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So, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention should develop a curriculum to bridge this gap, according to the task force.

It recommended using a teaching tool called Mental Health First Aid to instruct law enforcement officers, which Carroll County began utilizing more than a year ago, according to Bronson, one of the county's Mental Health First Aid class' four instructors.

The Carroll County Health Department sponsors the class, and various agencies send their employees to complete the 12-hour, two-day course, Bronson said.

The course consists of a general overview of mental health issues and delves into a plethora of topics, such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance-use disorders and more, Bronson said.

"It's a pretty comprehensive course where you learn most people with mental health illness are not violent," Bronson said. "That's something that's sort of a misconception."

A total of three classes in the county have trained about 50 to 60 officers from Westminster Police Department, Hampstead Police Department, Carroll County Sheriff's Office, McDaniel College Campus Safety and more.

"It's not something that is mandatory," said Lt. Misty Budzinski, of the Westminster Police Department and a county Mental Health First Aid instructor. "This is just a program that we're trying to get off the ground and launch so that all law enforcement officers are better equipped to handle mentally ill folks in our communities."

A cost-benefit analysis

The potential benefits of the task force's recommendations are worth whatever additional costs are incurred, the report states.

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Acquiring a regulated firearm in Maryland requires paying a $10 licensing and application fee, and a portion of such funds should be set aside for increasing education for law enforcement and health-care professionals, the report recommends.

The connection between people with mental illness and the use of firearms should continue to be studied.

In Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal "Taking a Comprehensive Approach to Reducing Gun Violence" released Friday, he recommended the creation of a DHMH-led task force to improve the continuity of care for individuals in the community mental health system. If created, it would review Maryland law and strengthen access to treatment with the goal of reducing the potential for violent behavior.

That's an initiative Jordan-Randolph said she's on board with.

"There's been a lot of discussion and opinion regarding violence and mental illness," she said, "and we'd like to use this is an opportunity to research the data."

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