Delaware wants to ban guns for those suffering from mental illnesses

Gov. Carney announced legislation to keep guns out of the hands of individuals suffering from mental illness. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

Gov. Carney announced legislation to keep guns out of the hands of individuals suffering from mental illness. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, and state legislators introduced a bill that aims to prevent guns from getting into the hands of those with mental illnesses. The law, if passed, will be named in honor of the late state Attorney General Beau Biden who had pushed such a bill when he was in office.

The Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act is similar to legislation advanced by Biden in 2013 in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. The legislation had bipartisan support in the state House, with only one voting against it, but it failed to pass in the state Senate 13-6.

The current bills like the one introduced 5 years ago aim to keep guns out of the hands of individuals suffering from mental illness.

“We hear names that take us back to each tragedy–Columbine, 12 students and one teacher, Sandy Hook, 20 children, Charleston, nine people, Las Vegas 58 people, the horrific event in Sutherland Springs (Texas) since Las Vegas, and all mass shootings in between. It seems tragically never-ending and begs the question, ‘When will it ever stop?’” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, a co-sponsor of the bill.

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“Laws that address mental illness and gun safety need to be sensitive, so they don’t create barriers to care to those who are suffering. There is still much stigma surrounding mental illness and mental health treatment despite the progress we’ve made. In order to erase the stigma, we have to improve the access and continue to give hope to those in need, so their illness can be seen in the same way as diabetes and cancer. This legislation is about making sure firearms aren’t in the hands of dangerous people and gives mental health professionals more tools if they believe a patient is a danger to themselves or others.”

If the legislation passes, anyone committed to a hospital for a mental condition, and criminal suspects found not guilty by insanity, guilty but mentally ill or mentally incompetent to stand trial, will be prohibited from owning a firearm.  

Health professionals would be required to report anyone who presents a danger to themselves or others. Law enforcement would investigate, and seek an order to require the person to hand over any firearms.

The CDC reports in 2016, there were 112 firearm deaths in Delaware and more than 36,000 in the U.S.

Suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the country. In Delaware, most suicide attempts don’t involve guns—but last year, 125 lives were lost to suicide, with more than half caused by firearms.

“We know the vast majority of people living with serious and persistent mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes rather than perpetrators of violent crimes,” said Department of Health Secretary Kara Odom Walker.

“However, we also know there are warning signs. When individuals with mental illness are a danger to themselves or others we must act to protect them and others around them. Research suggests the risk of violence for that subgroup of people is elevated at certain times, such as when they’re hospitalized for a psychiatric issue or that first episode of psychosis.”

Following several mass shootings in the U.S., it has been reported the shooter’s mental condition had not been known or reported. Carney said the legislation doesn’t address that particular issue but believes it’s an important first step to prevention.

“We ought to do what we can, and that’s why this is a thoughtful and reasonable approach both sides of the aisle can support,” he said.

“It’s a very contentious debate whenever you talk about gun safety legislation — those who support strongly the 2nd Amendment, and those who believe strongly in gun control. Not many disagree — I remember my days in Congress — around the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illness.”

The bill’s primary sponsor, Representative David Bentz, D-Christiana, said he believes the legislation provides individuals due process, and shouldn’t face any hurdles in the voting process.

The individuals could appeal orders to the Supreme Court and petition to have their firearms returned.

“I’m convinced all the concerns (republicans) raised at the time, which were quite numerous in terms of things like due process and returning the property of the guns after the crisis has passed, we were sufficiently able to answer those questions in the House, and we were able to get support of every Republican, except one,” Bentz said.

“Something changed in the Senate, where we weren’t able to sufficiently answer those questions in the same way we were in the House. The answers are still there. I think this has very strong due process protections and a strong process in place to return the property, and if they were fine with those answers the first time I don’t see how the situation has changed. I hope they will join us like they did last time.”


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