Public defender objects to gun bill aimed at mentally ill people

A bill aimed at preventing mentally ill people from buying guns ran into objections Tuesday from the Washoe County public defender’s office, which said the measure makes “the mere accusation of a mental illness” enough to block firearms purchases.

Now, the law requires people to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital before their names 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.

Under Senate Bill 277, the filing of a legal petition to commit someone would be enough to place that person’s name in the background check database — whether or not they’re committed to psychiatric care.

Christopher Frey, of the public defender’s office, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the bill would deny a person’s constitutional right to due process. Frey said the person couldn’t have a lawyer challenge the petition before getting listed — which is possible under current law.

Also, the judicial processing of the petition for commitment would come after the Second Amendment right to buy a gun is taken away, he said.

“SB277 would make the mere accusation of a mental illness the disqualifying event,” Frey said. “SB277 would seem to, in essence, have the more grievous consequence attached at the early stage of the proceedings.”

At that point, the committee chairman, Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, interrupted Frey.

“That would not be the more grievous consequence,” Jones said sternly. “The most grievous consequence would be that they kill somebody, right?”

Jones and Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, who sponsored SB277, both have proposed legislation aimed at closing loopholes in reporting of the mentally ill to the gun background check system.

Their bills come in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings of 20 children by a mentally ill man in Connecticut last December.

In Carson City, a mentally ill gunman in 2011 killed four people in an IHOP restaurant and injured more than a dozen others. Both gunmen also killed themselves.

Kieckhefer, a gun owner, said he was trying to find a middle ground to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns, while protecting the rights of Nevadans to own firearms. He said “a middle ground might not exist.”

But he said the system now is flawed because mentally ill Nevadans are rarely reported to the gun background check system.

In 2012, he said, not one person was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital in Northern Nevada out of 583 petitions for commitment that were filed by police, doctors or other health care authorities.

In Southern Nevada, he said 10 percent of the petitions filed result in involuntary commitments. In previous testimony on the bill, he put the number at 237 commitments out of 1,953 petitions filed in fiscal year 2012.

In many cases, the people are released within the first 72 hours of observation during psychiatric hospitalization. Or the people voluntarily commit themselves, which does not put them in the gun background check system.

In other cases, a judge continues the case for days, weeks or even months until the person is released because they’re no longer considered a danger to themselves or others. Relapse is possible, though.

“These are people who should not be allowed to get out of the hospital and purchase a gun,” Kieckhefer said.

Kieckhefer said he has been working with the public defender’s office and gun rights groups that object to the way the bill is written in hopes of amending the legislation so it can pass legal muster. He noted that the bill would allow people to have their gun rights restored through a legal process after they are no longer judged mentally ill.

He told the public defender he has been struggling with finding the right balance in the bill.

“The balance in this case has resulted in zero commitments to the state mental hospital in the past year” in Northern Nevada, he said. “So I don’t think that’s necessarily the right balance.”

Jones told Kieckhefer to return to the Senate committee for a work session on the bill on Thursday as a Friday midnight deadline looms for bills to pass out of committee of the house of origin.

If bills don’t pass by Friday, they will die in committee — unless they’re brought back in part or whole as amendments to other bills.

In other testimony, law enforcement officials supported Kieckhefer’s bill.

Gun rights advocates opposed the measure, objecting to what critics called a lack of due process.

“This bill could cause someone to lose their constitutional right merely based on the filing of a petition,” said Dan Reid of the National Rifle Association, who added the NRA is still working with Kieckhefer on the bill.

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

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