October 20, 2014
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Commitee finalizes report on gun safety, behavioral health; legislation to follow

On Tuesday, the Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force approved their final report of recommendations for changes to state laws related to firearms, gun safety and mental health issues. It recommends the state of Rhode Island report additional mental health records to the National Criminal Instant Background Check System (NICS), with appropriate exceptions.

Once a quorum of 10 was present in Room 135 at the State House, a vote was taken and the group unanimously approved the report.

Co-Chair Senator Catherine Cool Rumsey (D-Charlestown, Exeter) thanked the committee, made up of legislators, behavioral health professionals, public safety officers and firearm owners, for giving of their time to attend meetings, listen to testimony and come together to create this report on an important issue.

“I feel very good, very positive that we were able to take an emotional, heated topic and get a well represented group of people together to discuss this,” said Cool Rumsey.

Co-Chair Representative Deb Ruggiero (D-Jamestown, Middletown) was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting for personal reasons.

This committee was to look at Rhode Island’s participation in NICS. The Task Force looked at current behavioral health and weapons laws, as well as other states, as it conducted its work. An objective was to prevent those who pose a danger from obtaining a firearm without infringing the rights of those who do not, or deterring those who need help from seeking it.

The report included six recommendations for amendments to current Rhode Island laws and the reporting of non-criminal behavioral health records to NICS. Rhode Island already reports criminal records of those found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

One recommendation was the creation of a federally certified relief board to hear the appeals of those denied a firearm. According to testimony from Attorney Jeanne Miller with the Department of Justice, any person denied a firearm for mental health reasons must have the ability to apply for relief even if that relief is not granted. The state can determine requirements such as a fee, time limit for relief, or time limit for being disqualified (a suggestion from the American Civil Liberties Union).

For those individuals whose mental health records would not be submitted to NICS, the Task Force recommended the state only report the records of those individuals who are involuntarily in treatment. The report reads, “a narrow definition is warranted to ensure that NICS reporting includes only those individuals who are so adjudicated, and for whom a likelihood of violent physical behavior and harms exists, including a determination of ‘the likelihood of serious harm.’”

Those who voluntarily seek treatment, seek treatment for non-criminal substance abuse or whose likelihood to cause harm is determined to be “low due to non-violent behaviors” would not be reported to NICS.

Other recommendations include keeping the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office in charge of criminal records and the District Court in charge of civil certification records to submit information to NICS, amending current statutory and Mental Health Law language to allow for the submission of identity information to NICS about mental health, and removing the term “mental defective” from state law.

They also tasked the legislature with determining appropriate language to amend state weapons law, striking or amending “or who has been adjudicated or is under treatment of confinement as a habitual drunkard.”

Senator Frank Lombardi of Cranston was a member of the committee and pleased with the final results.

“It was a daunting task with an immense amount of information. I think it was a balancing act between one’s right to privacy and public safety,” explained Lombardi.

Task Force member Craig Stenning, director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, was also very pleased with the balance between supporting those suffering from mental health issues and public safety concerns.

“I think everyone has a better understanding of the issue,” said Stenning.

He was also glad that the state chose to form this committee to study the issue and did not have a knee-jerk reaction to the events at Sandy Hook Elementary that might have caused more harm than good.

“I was pleased the state in general took a step back and took the time to do this,” said Stenning. “Our number one issue is to make sure the people who need help get it.”

Stenning said a main concern was that giving mental health records to the NICS system would cause individuals not to seek treatment for fear of being marked. Providing a federally qualified relief from disabilities board, creating a narrow definition of records reported to NICS to protect those individuals with a low potential to cause harm, and not reporting non-criminal substance abuse helps to address that concern.

“Overall, I was pleased with the results,” said Stenning, adding that this is only one piece of the puzzle.

Lombardi also believes the Task Force was able to fulfill their goal of addressing safety concerns without feeding the stigma of mental illness.

Overall, Cool Rumsey said the report is a step in the right direction; the committee was formed in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“Rhode Island is doing what we can to prevent gun violence without affecting second amendment rights,” said Cool Rumsey.

No legislation stemming from the recommendations in the report has been presented yet, but Cool Rumsey explained she and the rest of the committee expect legislation to be presented this session and some have been drafted already. She added that she and her co-chair Ruggiero will be supporting all legislation related to this topic.


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