O’Malley had initially sought to keep in place a decades-old threshold that prohibits gun purchases only by those committed to mental health facilities for 30 consecutive days or more. He also sought a new judicial step that would have required a court to declare that those involuntarily committed are “potentially dangerous” to others before restricting their rights to guns.
But with moderate Democrats questioning whether the governor’s provision went far enough to protect the public, O’Malley aides on Tuesday signaled the governor’s willingness to back a tougher provision similar to Virginia’s. A vote could come in the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as Thursday.
The mental-health measure is one of four components in a gun-control bill that O’Malley proposed after the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn. His bill would also ban assault weapons, tighten school security and require residents to submit digital fingerprints to obtain a license to buy a gun.
While the licensing requirement would be among the strictest nationwide, O’Malley (D) has faced a liberal’s dilemma on gun control and mental health, seeking to restrict access to firearms by those who may be violent while also protecting the rights and privacy of people with mental illness.
Joshua Sharfstein, O’Malley’s secretary of health and mental hygiene, said in an interview that the administration had come to view the Virginia model as more in line with federal guidelines aimed at getting the names of the potentially dangerously mentally ill into an FBI database used for background checks at the time of gun purchases.
“Also, it’s easier to implement and may help prevent some suicides,” Sharfstein said.
At an eight-hour hearing this month in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Maryland’s mental health professionals were split on tightening rules for mental-health patients. Some warned that a strict rule limiting gun ownership could deter those who may need treatment most from seeking it.
Barring gun ownership from people who have been involuntarily committed appears to be a compromise that some of the state’s leading voices on mental health will support.
“If you are involuntarily committed, you have gone through a [court] process that would indicate you are a danger to yourself or others, or at least at an increased risk of being that,” said Joshua Cohen, president of the Maryland Psychological Association.
Family members, police and others can now petition to have a Maryland resident’s mental health evaluated at a hospital. But if health-care providers think a person should be committed, only a judge can issue the order, and only on the basis that the person presents a danger to himself or others.