As we approach the first anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in our neighboring state, our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this unthinkable event.
As a result of that tragedy, I introduced legislation in the House to create a Task Force on Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety. This Joint House and Senate Task Force, which I co-chair along with my colleague Senator Catherine Cool Rumsey, has been meeting regularly during the General Assembly’s off-session.
This 20-person Task Force is very inclusive, consisting of members from the police, Attorney General’s Office, the Mental Health Advocate, substance abuse agencies, as well as three gun owners from the Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club. Our collective charge is to review current mental health laws and recommend a comprehensive approach to behavioral health and gun safety.
There’s a delicate balance between gun ownership, public safety and mental health. Currently, Rhode Island DOES report both local and national criminal backgrounds to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Rhode Island is one of 10 states (Massachusetts is another) that does not submit mental health information to the federal NICS System.
The focus of this Task Force, as defined by Rhode Island law, is to review different states’ approaches of compliance to NICS; propose recommendations and policy (legislation) on how Rhode Island would comply; and make recommendations for a Relief from Disqualifiers Board so that if someone is denied access they have legal recourse.
So, why does Rhode Island not provide mental health information? What are other states’ best practices? How do we balance public safety with individual rights with respect to those with a mental disability?
According to public testimony from Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals Department, Rhode Island has a pretty solid mental health law that goes beyond the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Current mental law, drafted in 1975, prohibits disclosure of mental health records unless a person or guardian relinquishes that right, and no person admitted or certified to any facility shall be deprived of any constitutional or civil rights.
Let’s be clear: a mental health diagnosis is not a predictor of violence. There are people with a mental disability who are NOT dangerous just as there are people without a mental disability who are VERY dangerous.
We don’t want any “unintended consequences” of discouraging someone from seeking mental health treatment for fear of having to relinquish their right to gun ownership. That could be a veteran returning from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder or a first responder, like a police officer, who suffers mental trauma from having witnessed a horrific scene. At least one if not more police officers who responded to Sandy Hook Elementary are on mental disability and seeking treatment after seeing 5- and 6-year-old children murdered in their classroom.
It’s more than tightening gun control; it’s augmenting programs to help the mentally ill. Rhode Island is a leader in gun laws, ranked eighth in the nation, even requiring background checks at gun shows.
Whether you’re in the NRA or the PTA, no one wants innocent people killed.
Since 2007, we’ve seen over 26 mass shootings in this country. Tragedies like these shootings raise public consciousness. We need to look at the person and not the gun as we work to prevent these horrible tragedies from ever happening again.
(Deborah Ruggiero is the Democratic State Representative from District 74, Jamestown, Middletown.)