Proposed gun control legislation targets Nevada's mentally ill

State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer on Thursday said Nevada laws aren't preventing mentally ill people from buying guns because courts must commit people to psychiatric hospitals against their will to ban them from owning firearms.

Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said he will introduce legislation to expand the number of mentally ill individuals who are listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The database is used to check gun buyers for criminal, drug and mental health histories that bar them from legally buying guns from retail outlets.

Now, Nevada law requires mentally ill individuals to be listed in the federal background database if they are judged legally insane or if they're involuntarily committed to a public or private mental health hospital. Kieckhefer said he wants mentally ill people listed in the gun registry as soon as there is a legal petition to commit them - whether they're hospitalized against their will or not.

"These are people who a psychiatrist has diagnosed with a mental illness and who are believed to be a danger to themselves or others," Kieckhefer said in an interview, referring to the petition process. "In those instances, I think those people should be restricted from buying a gun."

Kieckhefer, a gun owner, said he isn't trying to restrict anyone's Second Amendment right to own firearms. But he said the intent of the law isn't being carried out because most severely mentally ill Nevadans can still buy guns. He said his legislation would let people regain their rights to buy guns after a three-year cooling off period.

The proposed bill comes as Nevada and the nation debate ways to address gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, including the killing of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Connecticut in December.

Closer to home in Carson City, a gunman on Sept. 6, 2011, killed four people and injured more than a dozen at a restaurant before killing himself. Eduardo Sencion had a history of mental health problems. He was treated in California and had voluntarily committed himself for psychiatric treatment.

Kieckhefer's measure also comes as Nevada lawmakers face tensions after Assemblyman Steven Brooks was arrested over the weekend on felony accusations that he threatened Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick. Police found a gun in Brooks' car. His relatives and fellow lawmakers reported he had been acting erratically lately.

The session gets under way on Feb. 4, and Brooks, who said he is innocent, plans to attend, his lawyer said.

Kieckhefer said he has been working on his legislation for a few weeks. He has held discussions with law enforcement officials, the courts, the attorney general's office, mental health professionals, the Nevada Health and Human Services Department and with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, he said.

In a news release, Kieckhefer said the number of court-ordered involuntary admissions to the state's two public psychiatric hospitals "is shockingly low and reveals a total system failure in this critical area of public safety."

In fiscal year 2011, psychiatrists at Rawson-Neal Hospital in Las Vegas filed court petitions for the involuntary commitment of 1,619 people diagnosed with mental illness and as a danger to themselves or others.

Of those, 178 were involuntarily committed, putting them into the gun background check registry that bans them from buying firearms, Kieck­hefer said.

In fiscal year 2012, Southern Nevada psychiatrists filed 1,953 petitions, and 237 people were involuntarily committed.

In Northern Nevada, there were no court-ordered commitments in fiscal year 2012 out of 583 petitions from the Dini-Townsend Hospital, he said. In 2011, there were seven involuntary commitments out of 601 petitions.

Kieckhefer said most of the mentally ill patients with court petitions pending were held in the hospitals for weeks at a time while being treated. In other cases, the individuals were treated and released before they ever had a court hearing on the petition, he said, so they never were entered in the background database.

"I believe the intent of the law is clear, and it's that people suffering from mental illness who pose a danger to themselves or others should not be able to purchase a gun," Kieckhefer said. "I also believe that our community expects that the intent of this law be enforced. The fact that not a single person from Northern Nevada was put into NICS last year under this category is shocking and demonstrates all-too-clearly that the current system isn't working."

Former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she didn't think Kieckhefer's proposal would solve the problem of keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who might turn suddenly violent.

Leslie, a mental health advocate, said the answer is improving access to treatment and encouraging family and friends to get help for their loved ones who show signs of mental illness or violent tendencies.

"Senator Kieckhefer is looking for a solution and there's nothing wrong with that," Leslie said. "But this solution isn't going to make a difference. It's fraught with problems, and it isn't going to get to the real issue."

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.