Maryland panel begins look at gun access by mentally ill

A state task force composed of police, mental health advocates and gun rights representatives began its look Tuesday at whether Maryland laws governing gun access by the mentally ill should be changed.

Questions the 17-member panel will consider include whether the 30-day state hospital stay that triggers a prohibition on buying firearms should be changed, whether the criteria for finding someone dangerous should be changed, and whether there should be a court process for restoring gun ownership rights.

"We want to make sure that any conclusion that is based on a psychiatric diagnosis is fair," said Laura Cain, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center.

In addition, she said, she wants to ensure that any recommendations for changes in the law for mentally ill people are not "so overly broad that their privacy rights are infringed upon."

Capt. Jack McCauley of the Maryland State Police, a co-chairman of the panel, said he is concerned that someone will not seek psychiatric care for fear of turning up in a state database.

A prosecutor said her office is seeing an increase in gun use by people who have psychiatric problems.

"We are seeing more and more persons that appear to have some mental health issues and we are finding that they are in the possession of firearms — they are using these firearms," said Tara A. Harrison, deputy state's attorney in Prince George's County.

She said some obtained the weapons legally. Nevertheless, some have spent a decade in and out of state mental hospitals, without a 30-consecutive-day stay that would bar gun ownership.

Created by legislators in the spring, well before recent shootings outside Maryland that captured the nation's attention, the task force is to make recommendations to the governor at the end of the year.

The panel began its work in Baltimore amid heightened concern over incidents such as last month's shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. The man charged reportedly had been seeing a University of Colorado psychiatrist who had shared her concerns with a school threat-assessment team.

The first session also came the day that a Crofton man was released to his parents after spending less than a month in a psychiatric facility, accused of making telephone threats to shoot co-workers. Police said he legally owns more than two dozen weapons.

Under current law, Maryland State Police, who regulate purchases of certain guns — mostly handguns and assault weapons — check with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to determine whether a person applying to buy a regulated gun has ever been in a state hospital for a month. That can make someone ineligible to buy certain weapons, although former patients also can be cleared by a psychiatrist.

While handgun and assault weapon purchases are under state supervision, those of other guns are not. Some people with a history of mental illness may not come to the attention of authorities because most mental health information is private.

Also of concern is the safety of law enforcement officials, who noted that this month marks 10 years since two Prince George's County deputy sheriffs were gunned down by a man they were to remove from his parents' home for psychiatric care.

Laws about weapons access by people who are deemed mentally ill vary widely across the country. Among them, Georgia bars gun licenses for anyone within five years of receiving inpatient care at a mental hospital or drug or alcohol treatment facility. In Indiana, it is illegal to give or sell a handgun to a person one believes is mentally incompetent.

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