Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley details proposed gun-control legislation… (John Wagner/The Washington…)
Virginia, home to the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, the Nation’s Gun Show and a conservative legislature, is by many measures a more gun-friendly state than Maryland.
But in one aspect of gun control, Virginia is more restrictive than its neighbor across the Potomac. Residents of the commonwealth are almost three times as likely to be banned from owning a firearm for mental health reasons as residents of Maryland, which has been reluctant to restrict the rights of the mentally ill.
For the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), this poses a dilemma. Their determination to pass one of the nation’s toughest gun-control policies in the current legislative session is bumping headlong into the desire to protect the rights and privacy of people with mental illness.
After last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., O’Malley was quick to join several governors, Democrats in Congress and President Obama in proposing measures that would restrict access to firearms. O’Malley’s plan would ban assault weapons, institute strict gun-licensing requirements — and help him cement a progressive legacy as he eyes a possible presidential run in 2016.
The package is also notable for what it does not do: O’Malley has deliberately sought to steer clear of what he considers overly expansive restrictions when it comes to mental health, saying that going too far could scare people from seeking treatment.
But some leading law enforcement officials and legislators in O’Malley’s own party argue that his proposals don’t go far enough to strengthen a system they believe allows dangerous people access to weapons.
“Swiss cheese would look good by comparison. It’s riddled,” Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) said of the current system. “This is really a screwed-up situation.”
O’Malley’s package is far less stringent on mental health than laws recently passed in New York, another liberal-leaning state. There, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and the legislature agreed to require mental health professionals to inform authorities when they believe a patient is dangerous.
But even though a task force on mental health appointed by Maryland’s General Assembly recommended that the state pass a similar measure, the O’Malley administration decided against it, citing concerns about patient privacy.
Joshua Sharfstein, state secretary of health and mental hygiene, defended the decision, saying it was rooted in the best advice of mental health professionals, who say that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent.
“We’re trying to balance the importance of protecting people with the importance of the therapeutic relationship,” Sharfstein said. “If you have a very, very broad definition of reporting, it becomes very hard for people to seek help. That can create dangerousness and unintended consequences on the other side.”
Still, Simmons, the state delegate, said he will introduce a bill similar to what the task force suggested, focusing on mandatory reporting of the mentally ill who appear to have a clear and present intent to commit violence against others, but not those who threaten suicide.
While it may not go as far as some would like, O’Malley’s proposal, which has been endorsed by the state’s psychiatric foundation and some prominent researchers, does have some measures that deal with mental health issues.
It would add two new categories of residents who would be disallowed from purchasing firearms: those who no longer have power over their own legal decision-making because of mental illness, cognitive decline, disability or other reasons; and those who have been involuntarily committed and who a judge determines are a danger.
The state also would establish a 24-hour hotline for people to get help for a relative or friend who they think is suffering a sudden mental decline in late adolescence.
Maryland’s effort to address mental health issues is its first attempt since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. In response to that massacre, Maryland started requiring everyone buying a gun to sign a waiver allowing authorities to do criminal and mental health background checks.
Virginia, where there are dramatically more gun purchases than in Maryland, took a tougher approach after Virginia Tech.
In the commonwealth, people are immediately banned from purchasing guns when they are ordered into treatment against their will. People found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity also are put on the proscribed list, which as of January contained 184,133 names, according to state police.
By population, that means a Virginia resident is nearly three times as likely to be banned from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons as someone who lives in Maryland.
Virginia’s restrictions led the state to reject for mental health reasons 235 requests to buy firearms in 2011 and 340 in 2012.