The Maryland State Police are requiring people who want to buy firearms to sign a release allowing authorities to check whether they have ever resided in a state mental health institution for 30 days or more.
In the wake of the Virginia Tech killings this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Health Secretary John M. Colmers gave their blessing to the state police to broaden the firearms application -- an effort, officials said, to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining guns.
Before the change, "we were relying on your honesty as an applicant that you were telling us the truth about your mental health history," said Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the state police. "We had no way to check."
The new requirement, which was not approved by the General Assembly because it is not a state statute, went into effect Aug. 1.
"Coming out of the tragedy of Virginia Tech, we reviewed the laws currently on the books and ... thought that the state of Maryland could move forward with protections without new legislation," said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman. The change in the application was first reported in The Washington Post.
Shipley said that the revised firearm application does not allow the state police to peruse the mental health files of an applicant and that an individual is not handing over those files in signing the waiver. "The state police will have no access to clinical information," he said.
John Hammond, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the police will have "very limited access" to mental health records, only for the purposes of confirming a stay in a state facility. The details of an individual's treatment, medication or condition will not be available to the police, he added.
"DHMH has in place protocols to ensure that confidential information is protected at all times," Hammond said.
The firearm application asks individuals to divulge whether they have been "adjudicated mentally defective" or committed to a mental institution. Previously, the state was unable to cross-check an answer to the latter question. Now the licensing division of the state police can call the state health department with a name and date of birth of an applicant and the agency can confirm the veracity of that person's answer.
Under the change, the state is still unable to determine whether a firearm applicant has been treated by a personal physician or admitted to a private treatment facility. Those records remain confidential and inaccessible.
Shipley said that police have checked about 3,000 applicants since Aug. 1, and that no one has provided misinformation past mental health history.
Maryland gun laws include a seven-day waiting period. Applicants must also complete a state-certified firearms training course. There are a series of disqualifying characteristics -- a person cannot be a drunkard, a fugitive or addicted to a controlled dangerous substance, among others.
A physician can submit a letter to the state asserting that a person who might have been committed is "capable of possessing a regulated firearm without undue danger to the person or to another."
Ron Honberg, legal director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he is concerned that Maryland officials are focusing on revising gun laws instead of expanding access to mental health services.
"We worry about whether there's been any consideration about what impact this might have on people's willingness to seek treatment," he said. He also cautioned that significant safeguards should be implemented to protect privacy and insure that records are not used for other purposes.
Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association, said his group believes federal laws are sufficient. "Any person who has been adjudicated as mentally defective, [or has] been deemed to be a danger to themselves, a danger to others, should not have a firearm," he said.
State lawmakers are expected to convene a task force this fall to examine how information is shared between DHMH and criminal justice officials.