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Thinking through gun laws aimed at mentally ill

gunlawcrpdSeems like every state has some kind of bill pending that would limit or prohibit ownership of a firearm by a person who has a mental illness.

I looked at Florida’s bill last night and did a Homer Simpson “D’oh” after reading it. You know legislation is messed up when it contains phrases like, “as provided in sub-sub-subparagraph b.(II).” What?

The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the NRA-backed measure on Monday. I expect it will move up the food chain fairly quickly and by summer, it will be law.

As someone who has depression, hypomania, alcoholism, a couple of suicide attempts and 12 years of sitting in courtrooms covering humanity’s inhumanity as a reporter for the local newspaper, I would like to weigh in on this bill; It is a subterfuge deliberately created with so many bureaucratic obstacles and constitutional pitfalls that it is destined to fail even if it passes.

The bill (HB 1355) would expand the definition of commitment to a mental institution to include those who voluntarily agree to outpatient or inpatient treatment and would prohibit them from buying guns, applying for or keeping a concealed weapons permit.

Sounds like an admirable thing to do. While the current focus of such laws is to protect us from homicidal, mentally ill “lunatics” (a Wayne LaPierre word – not mine), it will more likely save more lives by preventing suicide, which is far more common among people with mental illnesses than homicide.

The bill requires a “preventative assessment” that enables the state to suspend a person’s right to purchase or possess a gun or ammunition and obtain a concealed weapons permit for at least 90 days after a physician determines they are a threat to themselves or others.

Hurdle #1: The bill requires a physician to notify the Florida Department of Law Enforcement within 24 hours of such a finding. Do you have any idea how many suicidal people end up in emergency rooms having their stomachs pumped after botched suicide attempts? Then there are self-inflicted gunshot wound and wrist slashings.

What about alcohol poisoning and unintended overdoses? These people are clearly a danger to themselves and possibly others. Do these people lose their ability to purchase, possess, “or to have in his or her care, custody or control a firearm or ammunition, or to carry a concealed weapon for at least 90 days?”  Does this mean emergency room physicians must do a preventative assessment on these patients and fill out the paperwork  and submit it to the FDLE within 24 hours of the patient coming into the ER?

Hurdle #2: How are we going to make sure that a person who was court-ordered to a 30-day drug treatment program won’t be released and go home to their guns and ammunition? Are we going to expect them to surrender their weapons and ammo or are we going to have an official go to the house and remove them? You think the NRA is going to stand for that? And who gets custody of those weapons and ammunition for the remainder of those 90 days or as long as it takes for the person with a “firearm disability” to get well and petition the court to get their firearms back?

If you want objective understanding of what this bill will do, look at the “Government Sector Analysis” done by the Senate staff. Because the bill requires the state to issue a 90-day-suspension of a concealed-weapons permit upon a finding of a “firearm disability,” “an indeterminate number of suspensions would result.”

Hurdle #3: Florida has issued more than 1 million concealed weapons permits and the way the proposed bill is worded, a gun owner could lose their concealed weapons permit because of what is said during a counseling session. The agency that issues concealed-weapons permits ” would have to track any licensee whose license was suspended pursuant to the bill as the (agency) would be required to automatically reinstate the license after 90 days,” if the “firearm disability” is not renewed by the physician.

“If only one percent of the current one million concealed-weapon licensees were to be the subject of a preventative assessment, more than 10,000 concealed-weapons licensees would require immediate suspension, to be followed 90 days later by either an immediate reinstate or suspension extension,” the staff wrote. Depending on the number of suspensions, “the bill may significantly affect the timeliness of other suspensions, revocations, and reinstatements that the division’s legal section currently handles.”

Hurdle #4: The portion of the bill that I believe could give the NRA heartburn is the process by which a person who has lost their gun ownership/possession rights because of a  “firearm disability” can get those rights back. That person must file a petition with the court. The petition then goes to the state attorney. If the state attorney objects, a hearing is held.

The state attorney and the “firearm disabled” person can subpoena witnesses to testify, present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. The hearing must be recorded and the judge must issue a written order. If the judge denies the request, the person with the “firearm disability” can appeal to a higher court. Do you have any idea how much that will cost? It’s easier – and cheaper – for a felon to get their gun rights restored. Do you thing the NRA is going to sit still for this?

Consider this: In Florida, state attorneys and judges are elected. That means they must campaign. Imagine their chance of re-election if they allow the gun rights of a “firearm disabled” person to be restored and then that person goes out and kills himself or someone else.

I am not against restricting the access and ownership of guns of certain people with mental illnesses. It would prevent many deaths – especially suicides. I am just not sure this bill is the best way to do it. It has been thought through by lawmakers who are responding to public outcry after the Newtown massacre.

I do not have a solution. I do have a suggestion. Invite representatives from organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, emergency room doctors, clerks of court, licensing agencies, the judiciary, state attorneys, community mental health centers, law enforcement, correctional facilities, mentally health organizations and, yes, even the NRA to come together and share their concerns. Hold a hearing. Convene a blue-ribbon panel. Whatever it takes.

More importantly, ask them for recommendations. They are on the front lines. They need to be involved in drafting new laws.

Gun law image available from Shutterstock

Thinking through gun laws aimed at mentally ill

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2013). Thinking through gun laws aimed at mentally ill. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Apr 2013
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