House OKs removing guns from mentally ill

DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that lays out protocols for removing guns from individuals deemed to be dangerous due to mental illness.

By a vote of 39-0, with two members absent, the chamber sent the bill to the Senate. The measure has been heavily modified since it was first introduced in January, but the sponsor said he believes the changes make it a stronger bill.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 302 would create a process for law enforcement to take and keep guns from anyone who is mentally ill or deemed dangerous to themselves or others by police and the courts.

“This is an idea that everyone more or less agrees with, that we need to make sure that people who have a mental illness that’s manifesting in a violent way can’t get access to weapons, but how do you then execute that? Working with all these different parties and all these different mechanisms in state government, that’s why this is a very challenging bill to write, and I think we’re in a place now” where this is a very solid bill, main sponsor Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana, said after the vote.

The proposal is based on legislation filed in 2013 after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That measure passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate.

The legislation approved Tuesday specifically prohibits 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.

Mental health professionals would be required to inform law enforcement and arrange for the patient to be hospitalized or committed if a threat is made. They would have discretion to reveal confidential discussions to law enforcement.

If a law enforcement agency receives a report of someone who owns firearms and is dangerous, it would be obligated to investigate and, if it determines probable cause, file the 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 would 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.

The bill had called for a 60-day timeline for the agency to seek an extension, but an amendment cut it in half.

Unlike the first order, a Superior Court decree would require a hearing if the accused person requests one. A hearing would have to be held within 15 days of the Superior Court ruling.

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 would require the person to surrender their guns to law enforcement, the Superior Court mandate would allow 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.

Gov. John Carney in a statement applauded the passage of the measure, which is named after the late Beau Biden, Delaware’s attorney general from 2007 to 2015 and a driving force behind the 2013 bill.

“The Beau Biden Gun Violence Prevention Act would responsibly restrict access to firearms for those who are considered a danger to themselves or others — while protecting the due process rights of all Delawareans. The bill also takes steps to ensure that Delaware health professionals and law enforcement are working more closely together on the issue of gun safety,” he said.

While the proposal passed without any votes against, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware does have concerns.

Contacted after the vote, Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said the organization supports the concept but feels the bill infringes on due process.

“No other state has passed legislation that forces somebody from their home as a result,” she said.

Ms. MacRae also fears an attempt by law enforcement to take guns from someone deemed to be dangerous could lead to bloodshed, especially if the officers lack special training.

The measure is one of a handful of gun bills making their way through the General Assembly this year, although it is less controversial than some of the others. Bills to ban “assault-style weapons” and raise the age to buy a rifle to 21 are fiercely opposed by the National Rifle Association, which had no objections to the final version of the legislation approved Tuesday.

Rep. Bentz is also backing a measure that would allow law enforcement or family members to report someone dangerous so guns can be taken from him or her. Rep. Bentz said he hopes that bill is passed in the next three months.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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