Maryland gun bill would restrict ownership by mentally ill

Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield

Although Maryland has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, it's relatively easy for the mentally ill to obtain firearms. That would change under Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to toughen restrictions on gun ownership.

O'Malley's proposal, which was modified and approved by a Senate committee Thursday night, would forbid gun ownership for people who are found to be not guilty by reason of insanity or are deemed by a court to be a danger to themselves or others. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee also changed the bill to stop people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution from owning guns.

That provision would have stopped Dayvon Green, a University of Maryland student who fatally shot a roommate and wounded another before killing himself earlier this month, from legally purchasing a firearm.

Green had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution for four days in December 2011. Months later, he legally bought a semi-automatic rifle and the handgun he used to kill his roommate and himself.

Even after hours of debate stretching late into the night, the committee couldn't come to an agreement on what to do about people who voluntarily enter a mental hospital or are sent to an institution because a medical or mental health specialist declares the person a danger.

Under current law, a person who is a patient at a mental institution for 30 days cannot own a gun, regardless of whether he or she was committed voluntarily. Under the committee-approved legislation, that would still be the case for people who commit themselves.

"There's a big puzzle here, not just for the General Assembly, but for society," said committee member Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County. "It's clear that when a person reaches a certain level of mental disorder, we want to take their guns away. But we don't want to discourage them from getting help in the first place."

Maryland currently has relatively few restrictions on mentally ill people who want to own firearms.

If a Marylander suffers from a mental disorder, he is not forbidden from owning a gun unless he has a history of violent behavior. Even then, he can still purchase a gun with a doctor's note saying he doesn't pose a threat.

The gun bill is expected to be voted on by the full Senate by Friday. Raskin said he expects more amendments dealing with mental health while the bill's on the floor.

The House is scheduled to take up the measure starting next week, with a hearing Friday.

"It seems to be the gathering consensus of the committee that this is an extremely complex issue, and there may need to be more study with respect to mental health," Raskin said.

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