DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill expanding the ability of authorities in Delaware to prohibit people with mental health issues from having guns has cleared a House committee and is on its way to the full House for a vote.
The Health and Human Development Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to release the bill, which is aimed at ensuring that people deemed a danger to themselves or others don't have access to guns.
Under current law, a person who has been committed to a hospital or mental health institution for a mental disorder can be prohibited from possessing a gun. Lawmakers want to expand the mental health prohibition to include individuals considered to be a danger to themselves or others. Criminal defendants found guilty but mentally ill, not guilty by reason of insanity, or incompetent to stand trial also would be prohibited from having guns.
The bill is part of a package of gun-control measures proposed by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut last year, which left 20 children and six educators dead.
Rep. Michael Barbieri, a Newark Democrat and licensed social worker who is sponsoring the legislation, said tougher mental health prohibitions may not have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre, but perhaps could have prevented the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The suspect in that shooting, which left 12 people dead and 70 injured, was being seen by a psychiatrist before the attack.
"This bill will take weapons away from those people who, through process, have been identified as not having the capacity to make sound, rational decisions," Barbieri said.
The bill requires mental health providers, including licensed school counselors, to call police if they believe a person poses a danger to himself or others. Police would investigate and would refer the case to the attorney general's office if they believe the person shouldn't have access to a gun.
The attorney general's office could then ask a judge to prohibit the person from owning or possessing a gun. The judge also could order the seizure of any guns that the person owns. In the case of a troubled child, authorities could seize any guns owned by a parent or guardian with whom the child is living.
Opponents have raised concerns about patient privacy, the process for allowing authorities to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens, and the ability of someone once deemed a danger to himself or others to later have his weapons returned to him.
"The burden of proving that one is no longer prohibited is going to be on the patient," said Theresa Garcia, executive director of the 9-12 Delaware patriots, a conservative group opposed to the new gun control proposals. "Once a person is prohibited, it's going to be very hard to get that off your record."
Richard Armitage, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, spoke favorably about the bill but said changes are needed.
"The NRA agrees that people with mental instabilities should be restricted," he said.
But Armitage said the NRA will oppose the bill unless the standard of proof for declaring a person to be dangerous is changed from "a preponderance of evidence" as the bill currently states, to "clear and convincing evidence."
In response to other concerns raised by critics, Barbieri said the bill will be amended to allow a judge to designate a family member or someone else to hold guns for a person prohibited from having them, rather than just having police confiscate them.