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Expert: bill requiring report of mental illness to firearms dealers based on fear

SHERIDAN — Paul Demple, chief executive officer at Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center, said a proposed bill that would require mental illness adjudications be reported to firearm dealers is a response to gun violence in the U.S. based on fear, not fact.

The Wyoming Legislative Joint Judiciary Committee reviewed the bill titled, “Reporting mental illness adjudications to firearms dealers,” at a meeting Aug. 16.

Demple said the bill is based on a pervasive and misleading national rhetoric that all mentally ill people are dangerous.

“It’s just not the case,” he said.

Proponents of submitting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system often cite mass shootings committed by individuals with severe mental illnesses as the reason to require reporting.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 says people who have been involuntarily treated at a mental institution or who have been found mentally defective cannot purchase firearms.

However, Wyoming is one of a few states that does not require information about mental illness be reported to NICS.

The proposed bill, nicknamed the “Fix NICS” bill, would require information about mental illness adjudications to be shared with the division of criminal investigation.

Thirty-three states have enacted laws requiring mental health records be reported to NICS since the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. Wyoming is not one of those states.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the Virginia Tech shooter passed two background checks before killing 32 people with a firearm.

The shooter was prohibited from purchasing a firearm under federal law based on a court ruling that he posed an imminent threat to himself or others as a result of serious mental illness, but the information was not submitted to NICS, according to the Law Center.

“It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent and far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of violence,” The American Psychiatric Association said in a press release Aug. 5 in response to deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

Demple agreed that the majority of individuals who become mass shooters don’t have mental illnesses.

It’s hard to imagine a sane person committing such hateful acts, which leads to a misunderstanding about mental illness while people look for something to explain the violence, he said.

“[This bill is] taking a class of people, based on fear, not facts, and trying to limit their rights,” he said.

Demple said people who have committed acts of domestic violence are of more concern for gun ownership than people with medical issues like mental illnesses.

Unless lawmakers plan to address other medical issues like low blood pressure and medications that interfere with cognizance, the bill unfairly targets people facing mental illnesses, he said.

When purchasing a firearm in Wyoming, Form 4473 asks questions about drug use, felony convictions and mental health. “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” it asks.

When the form is submitted to the NICS, there is no way to confirm if the response is accurate. Felony convictions will show up, but mental health information does not.

“Our dealers believe that the National Instant Background Check system must work…our dealers deserve to know, when they run that background check, if we are intentionally leaving data out of that system and leaving our dealers in peril,” Nephi Cole with the National Shooting Sports Foundation said during public comment at the committee meeting Aug. 16.

A 2016 study by the Violence Policy Center said Wyoming had the third highest firearm suicide rate in the U.S.

Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said access to firearms is only one component to deaths by suicide.

The Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office investigates death by suicide and accidental deaths with firearms in Sheridan County, he said.

Thompson said it is important to teach children early on about safety and the proper handling of weapons. He said families should also learn to recognize when a family member is going through a mental health crisis and restrict their access to firearms at home.

“It really starts in the home,” he said.

Thompson said Wyoming residents are raised to view guns as tools, not weapons of violence. He said reducing deaths by suicide and accidental deaths with firearms requires educating people about existing laws, training in safe handling of firearms and addressing the causes of suicide.

But regulating something as subjective as a person’s mental health, while balancing his constitutional rights and public safety is complex and problematic, he said.

“It’s difficult to be objective when the human is involved,” he said.

It would be unfortunate if human error came between a person and his constitutional rights, he said.

The SCSO participates in trainings to recognize and deescalate incidents involving mentally ill individuals who may harm themselves or others.

Wyoming Title 25 allows mental health professionals and law enforcement to intervene if there is an indication that an individual might harm himself or others, Demple said.

Demple said he and the NWMHC staff take their duty to report potential harm very seriously, partly by contacting family members and advising them to put away or lock up guns if someone poses a danger, he said.

Demple said providing resources, services and outreach to the individuals most likely to die by suicide is a suitable approach to addressing the high rates of suicide in Wyoming.

Demple said he is frustrated by this proposed bill because it won’t protect the public from incidents of violence; what drives mass shootings to occur is hate and divisiveness. Being capable of atrocious violence is not equivalent to having a mental illness, he said.

The bill also allows a person with a mental illness adjudication to petition the court for relief from the adjudication, legislative counsel Torey Racines said.

Demple said overturning a mental illness adjudication by proving that a person is no longer a danger to himself or others would be a “tall order.”

“Can you prove to me that you won’t steal a car?” he asked.

As written, the bill applies to people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and adjudicated in court, not people who voluntarily seek treatment.

The judiciary committee approved amendments to the bill including requiring information about drug abuse be reported as well and confidentiality during court proceedings for removing a mental illness adjudication.

The Fix NICS bill will be reviewed and voted on with amendments at the next judiciary committee meeting Oct. 31 in Cheyenne.