Carney signs bill to take guns from mentally ill

With former Vice President Joe Biden next to him, Gov. John Carney holds up the newly signed House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302, which seeks to keep guns away from individuals with mental illnesses. Delaware State News/Matt Bittle

NEWARK — Gov. John Carney signed into law the first major piece of gun legislation Monday, six days after it passed the General Assembly.

The bill deals with mental health and possession of firearms by individuals believed to be potential threats to themselves and others.

In honor of the late Beau Biden, who pushed a similar measure in 2013 when he was attorney general, the ceremony was held at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute and included appearances by members of the Biden family. The bill is named the Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302 would specifically prohibit people who have been committed to an institution for a mental disorder or found not guilty of a violent crime by reason of insanity, guilty but mentally ill or mentally incompetent from owning firearms unless they can prove they are no longer suffering from a disorder.

The original bill was introduced in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

“It quickly became clear to Beau and many of you legislators that one of the major problems is that there’s no mechanism that exists for a mental health provider to report specific threats to law enforcement and such a mechanism could — could — allow law enforcement to conduct an independent investigation of a threat and work with the Justice Department to remove weapons when appropriate, much like the protection already in place for domestic violence cases,” former Vice President Joe Biden said Monday.

Five years ago, the measure passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate. This year, due to collaboration between main sponsor Rep. David Bentz and others, such as the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, votes in both chambers were unanimous.

“So much of what contributed to that bill not working out was sort of some last-minute concerns, the time of the year the bill was run — it was near the end of session, and I think it was even late in the evening when that bill ran the first time,” Rep. Bentz, a Christiana Democrat who was an aide to the 2013 bill’s main sponsor, said after the signing Monday.

“And there were just some questions that, I don’t think it was an issue of the questions not having answers, I think it was those answers not being given in a clear and concise way.

“So what we were able to do this time was really, with a lot of time to work with, go back to folks who had concerns with it and say, ‘What were they, what can we do to maybe clear it up, to really specifically outline, explicitly define the due process procedures we’re going to have in place,’ and I think once we were able to really definitively and explicitly spell those out for people, we were able to make everybody comfortable.”

Under the new law, which goes into effect in six months, mental health professionals are required to inform law enforcement and arrange for an individual to be hospitalized or committed if a threat is made. They have discretion to reveal confidential discussions to authorities.

If a law enforcement agency receives a report of someone who owns firearms and is believed to be dangerous, it will be obligated to investigate. Should the agency determine probable cause, it must file a report with the Department of Justice and seek from the Justice of the Peace Court a mandate for that person to give up their guns and ammunition.

The individual in question would not be notified ahead of time or given a court hearing.

The order will be good for 30 days, unless the Department of Justice chooses to seek an indefinite extension with the Superior Court or requests 15 more days to file a petition. A Superior Court decree requires a hearing to be held within 15 days if the accused person requests one.

Both courts can mandate a person cannot live with someone who has guns for the duration of the order.

While the Justice of the Peace Court order requires the person to surrender his or her guns to law enforcement, the Superior Court mandate allows him or her to give them to a designee, as long as that designee does not live with the individual in question.

Decisions by the Superior Court could be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

While the National Rifle Association did not oppose the measure, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware did have some concerns about due process, Mr. Biden noted Monday.

Many mass shootings, such as the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, involve individuals who are determined to be mentally unwell and in some cases were known ahead of time to be potential threats to others or themselves.

The legislation is an example of how Democrats and Republicans can compromise on gun measures, officials said. Several gun control proposals, including ones to prohibit the sale of “assault-style weapons,” criminalize magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, raise the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and ban bump stocks, are pending in the General Assembly.

Lawmakers are also expected to pursue related bills that would clarify how an individual can prove he or she is fit to own firearms and allow family members and law enforcement officers to petition the Superior Court for an order removing guns from the possession of someone believed to be dangerous.

“The Delaware Legislature has accomplished with this bill that which seems to be elusive in many other places: a bipartisan commitment to craft common-sense gun violence protection legislation to protect the community,” Mr. Biden said.

“There is room, there is room to talk with people with whom you have profound disagreements. There is place to meet compromise. Whether it is the NRA or whether it’s any other group with whom you may have profound differences, there is space. There is space. It matters that we engage one another.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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