Don’t arm people in a mental health crisis

As experts in mental health law and policy, we believe the best way to keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have access to them – including some people with serious mental illness – is to require a background check for every gun purchase, regardless of where it takes place. That’s why we fully supported the Manchin-Toomey legislation when it came up for a vote, and we hope those who opposed it in April will seriously reconsider their position when it’s reintroduced in the coming months.
 
Unfortunately, some of those very lawmakers who voted against the Manchin-Toomey legislation – including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.),  Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) – are inaccurately claiming that they voted for better background checks and for improved reporting of mental health records. They are referring to their votes in favor of a National Rifle Association-backed amendment – sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) – that would have endangered public safety and put Americans in harm’s way.
 

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Not only did the Grassley-Cruz amendment fail to address the glaring loophole in the law that allows 6.6 million guns to be sold without a background check every year. It would actually have weakened the existing background check system by making it even easier for people with serious mental illness to buy firearms during periods of crisis.
                                  
Under current law, anyone who is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital is prohibited from buying or possessing guns until a court or administrative body restores those rights.
 
Under the Grassley-Cruz amendment, however, gun rights would be automatically restored when the commitment order expires. People recently hospitalized and still recovering from a mental health crisis could go directly from the hospital to a gun store – and legally buy a firearm. Guns that were seized at the time of hospitalization would have to be returned.
 
The expiration of an involuntary commitment order is often just the starting point in a person’s ongoing recovery from an acute episode of a mental disorder. Indeed, attempts at suicide and other acts of violence following hospitalization are most likely to occur shortly after discharge, with the risk diminishing over time. Whether, and when, to restore gun rights to a person with a mental disorder is an important determination that should be made in a separate proceeding informed by appropriate expert opinion about a person’s recovery and the likelihood of relapse.
 
The Grassley-Cruz amendment likely would have increased the risk of suicide and harm to the public posed by those recently released from psychiatric hospitals, since it would have removed these names from the background check system and allowed people to buy guns even though they might be a danger to themselves or to others.
 
This is all to say nothing of the fact that Grassley-Cruz would cut funding for the background check system by $105 million in 2013, and provide only one-fifth of the funding that the Manchin-Toomey amendment would provide for fiscal years 2014-2017. These cuts would make it even more difficult for states to submit their mental health records to the system.

If Sens. Ayotte, Flake, Portman and Coats and their colleagues are truly interested in strengthening the background check system and keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, they should reconsider their votes and support the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background check legislation.

Appelbaum, MD is Dollard professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University. Bonnie, JD is Harrison professor of law, psychiatry, and public policy at the University of Virginia. And Swanson, PhD is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.