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Task force proposes gun reform legislation

Bill would seek to block people with severe mental illness from access to firearms

The Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force of Rhode Island proposed recommendations to the General Assembly last week that would prevent individuals with serious mental health issues from purchasing firearms.

If the legislation is passed by the General Assembly, it would enable the state to submit mental health records of individuals deemed to be a danger to themselves or others to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the department’s website.

The task force consists of 20 members from different professions in public safety, policy and public health, including Assistant Attorney General Joee Lindbeck and several state representatives. NICS is a branch within the FBI that manages the national background check system, screening potential firearm buyers for criminal, mental health and substance abuse records.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, a co-chair of the task force, said Rhode Island currently only submits criminal records to NICS. But if someone has a criminal background suggesting a possible history of substance abuse, both records will be submitted, said Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-West Coventry, Foster and Glocester, a member of the task force. Rhode Island is one of 15 states in the country that do not submit mental health records to NICS, according to the website of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

“The recommendation made by the task force was a result of an absolutely dedicated group of very diverse individuals with diverse discipline and background getting together and staying focused,” Chippendale said, referring to the task force’s proposal.

The task force was careful to ensure the law would maintain the confidentiality of patients’ mental health records, as well as preserve and respect public safety and Second Amendment rights, Chippendale said.

If the recommended legislation passes, only the name, birthdate, gender and ethnicity of those involuntarily committed to mental health care facilities will be submitted to NICS, Ruggiero said.

“We did not want to deprive anyone of their civil rights because of a mental health issue unless there is a reason to do so,” Chippendale said.

Task force members are considering a language revision for parts of the statute they “feel are outdated or archaic,” Chippendale said, specifically refering to the term “mental defective,” which is used in the bill to describe people.

The task force also recommends a relief fund for individuals who want to appeal in court if they are prohibited from purchasing firearms due to this bill.

Given the number of highly publicized mass shootings across the country — such as the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — the connection between violent crimes and mental health was part of the General Assembly’s motivation to form the task force, Chippendale said.

Megan Ranney, assistant professor of emergency medicine, said critics argue the legislation might violate Second Amendment rights by obstructing the constitutional right to own a gun for people with histories of mental health problems. Other criticisms are that the legislation does not do enough to prevent gun violence and that it could discourage people with mental illnesses from seeking treatment, Ranney added.

Even though gun violence is a controversial topic nationwide, professors could not explicitly research gun violence until last January, given a previous government ban on using federal funding for any firearm-related study, Ranney said. Despite not having federal research dollars under the ban, members of the Injury Prevention Center and the School of Public Health have still investigated violence prevention, she added.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that professors could not research gun violence under a federal ban. In fact, President Obama lifted the ban in January 2013. It also incorrectly stated that University researchers have investigated gun violence prevention despite the ban. In fact, they have investigated violence prevention. The Herald regrets the errors.


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