Gun control bill would target Nevada’s mentally ill

Nevada more quickly would report mentally ill patients to a federal registry to ban people committed to institutions from buying firearms under a bill that also would require background checks for all gun purchases.

The proposed legislation from state Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, would require doctors to report when a mentally ill patient explicitly threatens another person with imminent serious physical harm and has the means to carry out the threat. Such information usually is confidential.

Jones said the goal of his bill is to close gaps in the gun background check system that have in a few cases allowed mentally ill gunmen to commit mass murder in shootings from Carson City to Connecticut. As well, he said it would provide legal protection to health professionals who feel duty-bound to report threats of violence.

“I want to work with everybody so at the end of the session we have a bill that will keep guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous to our kids,” said Jones, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Jones said he expects a final draft of his proposed bill from the Legislative Counsel Bureau this week. He said the measure would require more collaboration between Nevada mental health officials and professionals and law enforcement to keep mentally ill people from getting access to firearms.

Jones’ bill is one of a growing list of gun- control measures being considered by the Legislature. The efforts come in the wake of December’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults before killing himself.

In Carson City, on Sept. 6, 2011, Eduardo Sencion, who was mentally ill, killed four people in an IHOP and wounded others before killing himself.

Jones said his bill grew from a Feb. 14 committee hearing at which law enforcement and mental health authorities discussed difficulties in legally preventing the mentally ill from buying guns. Those involuntarily committed to a mental institution are supposed to be reported to the gun background registry, but few are because they are released within 30 days.

Jones’ bill would require reporting mentally ill patients sent to a psychiatric hospital against their will to the background check registry within five days. Current law allows such patients to have their Second Amendment rights restored if later judged mentally competent.

As of November 2011, Nevada had submitted 484 mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to a national report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Judge William Voy, who supervises mental health courts in Clark County, told Jones’ committee the courts handle several hundred psychiatric commitment petitions a week. Most patients are released within days after being stabilized on medication or after sobering up from drug or alcohol abuse, he said.

Jones said most mentally ill people are not violent but are victims of crime. Still, he said Nevadans need better protection from mentally ill people who have openly stated violent intentions.

Nevada is only one of four states that don’t have a “duty to warn” law requiring or permitting mental health professionals to warn law enforcement and potential victims of urgent threats from mentally ill patients.

Under Jones’ bill, the mental health professionals would be protected from liability if they report a threat.

Dr. Lesley Dickson, past president of the Nevada Psychiatric Association, said most professionals feel an obligation to report imminent threats if they have no alternative, such as hospitalizing the patient. She said a 1976 California court case imposed a legal duty on psychotherapists to warn of such threats.

“Warning and protecting an intended victim is more important than violating patient confidentiality,” Dickson said. “What we mostly do is put them in the hospital where they won’t act on those urges.”

Jones’ bill could face opposition from gun rights lawmakers, who oppose universal background checks.

Jones said there would be an exemption for people who have concealed- weapons permits because they already have to undergo background checks and firearms training.

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