Gun restriction irks mental health advocates

Advocates for people with mental illness began this legislative session with trepidation. Would lawmakers, eager to pass a strong response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, adopt restrictive measures against people with mental illness? Would the new law treat people with mental illness as sources of violence, even though they're more likely to be the victims?

The gun violence, school security and mental health bill that passed this week with bipartisan support came as a relief to many advocates, who praised the thoughtfulness behind it.

But there was one exception: A pair of restrictions on gun ownership for people who have been committed to psychiatric hospitals.

Anyone who is voluntarily committed will now be prohibited from owning a firearm or getting a permit within six months. Similarly, the law signed Thursday extends the time a person who was involuntarily committed is prohibited from owning a gun from one year to five.

The problem, advocates say, is that those restrictions target people based on their diagnosis, not their behavior. A person can be committed if he or she is "gravely disabled," not necessarily at risk of violence.

"We have spent the greater part of I don't know how many months now really trying to uncouple people living with mental illness and violence," said Kate Mattias, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Connecticut.

People are often hospitalized because their medications need to be adjusted, she and others said.

"We don't need to capture those folks," said Jan VanTassel, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project and co-chairwoman of the Keep the Promise Coalition, which advocates on mental health issues.

She noted that people who have restraining orders against them have no prohibition on owning a gun as soon as the order is lifted. Similarly, the restriction on people who were voluntarily committed does not apply to people who sought drug or alcohol treatment.

VanTassel said she understood that lawmakers were concerned about people who have suicidal tendencies getting guns -- the majority of gun deaths are from suicide, not homicide. But, she said, "It's an overly broad kind of restriction."

Rep. Peter Tercyak, a New Britain Democrat and psychiatric nurse, voted for the bill, but said earlier in the week that he was concerned the voluntary commitment provision would make hunters less likely to seek help.

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, Jr., said lawmakers discussed the risk of people being less willing to seek help. But he said six months is not a long time to be unable to have a gun, and that the provision would ensure someone was not a danger to him or herself, or to others.

"If someone has an unmanaged condition to the extent that their medication cannot address that condition, and it requires that they voluntarily commit themselves, I think it certainly does raise the question of whether that person would be potentially of harm to themselves or to someone else," said Williams, a Democrat from Brooklyn. "And our thought was that if the person is thoughtful enough to understand that they have to affirmatively take action to either protect themselves or those around them through voluntary commitment, then the relinquishing of a firearm for a minimal period of time like six months seems to be in concert with that step by that person, again, to protect themselves or those around them."

Williams contrasted the state's new law with the bill passed hastily by New York lawmakers after the Sandy Hook massacre. Among other things, the New York law requires mental health professionals to report to authorities when a patient is "likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others." Many mental health professionals and advocates have warned that that provision would cause people to avoid treatment.

"We saw this as nothing approaching that kind of disincentive, and in point of fact, felt that it is more appropriately viewed as part of that program or therapy providing greater security for that person and their own health and the well-being of those around them," Williams said.

And despite their concern about the gun restrictions, advocates say they were pleased with the overall law. It calls for expanding the use of intensive support services for people with serious persistent mental illness living in the community, providing training on signs of mental illness for educators, establishing a program that allows pediatricians to consult with child psychiatrists so they can better help patients with mental health needs, and setting up a task force for studying the mental health system, with particular focus on services for young adults.

It also makes changes to insurance statutes, requiring insurers to make faster decisions about whether they will cover certain mental health and substance abuse services, and to make their coverage decisions consistent with an established set of guidelines.

Follow Mirror health reporter Arielle Levin Becker on Twitter @ariellelb.

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