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Gov. Hickenlooper pitches swift holds of gun sales to mentally ill

Staff reports Updated: December 18, 2012 at 12:00 am

DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to expand mental health services and make mental health records readily available for background checks on firearm purchases — initiatives that are a response to the Aurora theater shooting this summer.

The governor's office and health officials began working on the proposals days after the theater shooting in July, and had planned the announcement for weeks. But the timing Tuesday comes as the country comes to grips with the tragedy at a Connecticut elementary school, another mass shooting that has raised the specter of mental health services and gun control.

Hickenlooper said in an interview with The Associated Press last week, before the shootings in Connecticut, that "the time is right" to discuss gun control, although he did not call for specific legislation.

"Obviously, emotions are rather, are extremely raw for the last few days across the country, and certainly for the last five months in Colorado," Hickenlooper said, adding, "never truly goes away."

Hickenlooper, who said resources for mental health services have declined in the past few years, is asking lawmakers for $18.5 million to expand those services.

Proposals include opening five 24-hour walk-in centers for mental health care and creating a state mental health crisis hotline. Those initiatives would cost about $10.2 million, the governor's office said.

"We know that access to services at present is insufficient, and oftentimes the delivery of those services is fragmented," Hickenlooper said. "And we're very well aware that resources for mental health services have declined" in the past few years.

Hickenlooper also wants mental health records to be immediately available for background checks on gun buyers. Currently, records are delivered twice a year, via a CD-ROM, to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which conducts the background checks. Lawmakers would have to pass a bill to make it happen, and there was no cost estimate for how much it would cost to revamp coordination.

Former neuroscience graduate student James Holmes is charged with killing 12 people and wounding 70 others in the movie theater shooting. His attorneys say he suffers from mental illness.

Authorities say Holmes legally purchased the weapons he used. Although Holmes saw a university psychiatrist, he did not have an official record of a mental illness, so it's unlikely he would have been flagged with a background check.

Hickenlooper said he knows "we're never going to have a fail-safe system." But he said he believes the money spent on expanding mental health services will be a wise investment.

"The common element of so many of these mass homicides seems to be a level of mental illness," he said.

Hickenlooper also proposes building two 15-bed residential facilities for short-term transition from mental health hospitals to the community, and housing vouchers for people with serious mental illness. That portion of the plan would cost nearly $4.8 million, the governor's office said.

Another element asks lawmakers to consolidate laws for placing someone in involuntary commitment. State officials say the current system, which includes three different statutory processes, creates confusion.

Hickenlooper's announcement comes on the day of another instance of gun violence. Four people were killing in an apparent murder-suicide in Longmont, police said. And last weekend, after the Connecticut shootings, mental health officials in Jefferson County said they saw an increase in the number of calls from people asking for help.

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Find Ivan Moreno at http://twitter.com/IvanJourno

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