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Guns and mental health

The arrest last month of a Maryland man for allegedly threatening to commit a mass murder at his former workplace inevitably drew comparisons to the shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that had occurred a few days earlier, leaving 12 people dead and 58 wounded. Both incidents raised questions about how people apparently suffering from mental illnesses managed to obtain firearms and whether tougher state and federal gun laws might have prevented them from doing so. That should be one of the first orders of business for the state task force that convened this week to consider changes to Maryland's laws governing gun access by the mentally ill. But the issue may not lend itself to an easy or quick resolution.

Fortunately, Neil Prescott, the 28-year-old Crofton resident accused of threatening a supervisor at Pitney Bowes' mail service facility in Capitol Heights, never got the chance attempt the copycat crime he may have been contemplating. Police took him into custody shortly after the threats were reported and immediately transferred him to Anne Arundel Medical Center for an emergency psychiatric evaluation. At his home, they seized dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition — all legally purchased.

Mr. Prescott was released into the custody of his parents Tuesday, having remained voluntarily at the psychiatric facility for more than three weeks. Prince George's County prosecutors say Maryland's weak statute against making threats means he cannot be charged with anything more serious than misuse of a telephone, a misdemeanor. And because his commitment at Anne Arundel Medical Center was voluntary, and because it last lasted fewer than 30 consecutive days, there is nothing in current state law to prevent him from going right back out and buying as many guns as he wishes.

Clearly, there is something wrong here, but policymakers may be hard put to find a solution to the problem for two very simple reasons: Not all mentally ill people are dangerous, and there's no scientific way of predicting which of them will become violent. Whatever changes the state panel recommends to further restrict access to guns by mentally ill people will have to cover not only cases like that of Mr. Prescott but do so in a way that passes constitutional muster.

Maryland already bans gun sales to people with mental disorders who have a history of violence, as well as to those who have spent 30 or more consecutive days in a mental institution, whether they were committed voluntarily or involuntarily. In addition, federal law prohibits gun sales to anyone who has been convicted of a felony or been involuntarily committed to an institution; has been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity; or has been found incompetent to stand trial. It also bans gun sales to anyone who has had a guardian appointed by the courts because of inability to manage his or her own affairs.

But Mr. Prescott doesn't fall into any of those categories. Even if he were convicted of misuse of a telephone, that would not count as a felony. Because he voluntarily spent fewer than 30 consecutive days at the psychiatric facility, neither the federal nor state laws apply to his case. And he has no record of having pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity or of being found incompetent to stand trial; nor has he ever been appointed a guardian by the courts.

Contrast Mr. Prescott's case with that of a hypothetical 15-year-old girl whose parents check her into a psychiatric facility for treatment of an eating disorder. If she stayed there for three months and was cured, when she came out she would be unable to buy a gun under Maryland law, even though she was never a danger to others (and perhaps not even to herself) and even though she had no history of violence. While Mr. Prescott was happily adding to his collection of deadly firearms, such a person would be barred from purchasing so much as a BB gun for the rest of her life (unless a court granted her relief).

The comparison points up one of the most vexing issues Maryland's firearms panel must resolve: how to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people who are likely to commit violent acts without penalizing everyone who has ever sought treatment for a mental disorder. Should a policeman treated for depression after a traumatic experience on the job, for example, be barred from owning a gun, even though his department permits him to carry his service weapon on duty?

The best predictor of future gun violence, whether committed by a mentally ill person or anyone else, is a history of past violence. That's the bottom line the state panel must keep in mind as it seeks to come up with recommendations aimed at preventing future tragedies like the Aurora shootings that also protect the rights of the vast majority of people with mental disorders who represent no danger to themselves or others.

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