Gun Control Debate Clouds Definition of Mentally Ill

Some states have already set their parameters as the Senate soon takes up its own bill.

Customers line up at the gun counter at Duke's Sport Shop on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in New Castle, Pa.

Customers line up at the gun counter at Duke's Sport Shop in January in New Castle, Pa.

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Some states had already instated tough gun control policies for the mentally ill before New York.

In California, if a person is placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold in a facility, then that person can't purchase firearms for five years after they were admitted. That person is also reported to the NICS database.

In Georgia and Mississippi, gun rights are restricted not only for those involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, but also for people who brought themselves to the hospital.

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Gun control groups disagree on which of these state measures has been effective. But New Yorkers Against Gun Violence executive director Leah Gunn Barrett says she thinks some state laws, such as the New York Safe Act, only codify a practice that mental health professionals were already doing.

"Mental health [professionals] are working with Albany to make any tweaks or corrections to the law that is needed," she says. "But the overall intent of the law is right — to keep guns from people who should not have them."

While this fight continues to play out at the local level, the Senate will return from recess to legislation proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would require better reporting of those considered mentally ill to the national database. Specifically, that includes people who have been criminally charged and found not competent to stand trial, people criminally charged and found not guilty due to insanity, and people committed to a psychiatric hospital.

"[The legislation] makes an effort for clarity for states about who they're supposed to report," says Honberg, who supports the bill. But perhaps more importantly, he says, "it's effort to try to link reporting to dangerousness, as opposed to generalized stereotypical assumptions about mental illness." Honberg is keen to point out that research shows mentally ill people are not violent.

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That's a point many gun control groups can agree on. Horwitz suggests that this debate could move forward if the focus was shifted away from mental illness and onto other factors that research has shown to directly correlate to violence.

"Why don't we focus on people with violent misdemeanors, who are at much higher risk of recidivism? Or...alcohol problems, substance abuse?" he says, arguing that a mental health professional and a court should make a determination of dangerousness, not a diagnosis. "No one is saying if you have schizophrenia then you [automatically] shouldn't have a gun... There are just too many unchecked guns."

More News:

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  • U.N. Passes NRA-Opposed Gun Control Treaty
  • View: The Gun Control Debate, in Plain English

  • This story has been updated to add context to Josh Horwitz’s quote.