Take guns away from those who threaten violence, Md. task force recommends

Law enforcement officials in Maryland should be authorized to confiscate firearms from people who make a specific threat of “serious violence” against someone, according to recommendations released Wednesday by a state government-appointed task force on guns and the mentally ill.

If the person making the threat does not own a gun, that person should be blocked from buying one, the task force said.

The group also recommended that mental health and other professionals be required to report such threats to local law enforcement. Those professionals would include psychologists, educators, social workers, addiction treatment counselors and others.

“The task force thinks every single one of those categories should be reporting. Some of those may be stronger than others in current law,” said Patrick Dooley, chief of staff at Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who was co-chairman of the group. Currently, the ethics code of the American Psychological Association says psychologists can disclose information to “protect the client/patient, psychologist, or others from harm.”

The task force, which included representatives from the police, courts, state government and advocacy groups, was created by the General Assembly last year. Its work took on added urgency after the massacre last month in Newtown, Conn., which resulted in 28 deaths, including the gunman’s.

Lindsay Nichols, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the changes, if implemented, would put Maryland in a select group nationwide.

“Really only a handful of states have looked at this. This proposal would really put Maryland in the forefront of addressing the problem” of violent mentally ill individuals having access to firearms, Nichols said.

Philip Watson, director of special projects at the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group, said his group is “cautiously optimistic” about the proposed effort “to keep dangerous individuals away from firearms.”

But “we’re concerned about improper administration of it . . . as well as the provisions for due process,” Watson said. There would need to be “safeguards against improper and overzealous application of the law,” and stronger provisions for restoring gun ownership rights to those who have had firearms taken away, with the burden of proof on the state.

“If they’re dangerous enough to confiscate weapons, maybe they should not be walking around on the street,” Watson said.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said the group is “moving in the right direction. We have to address the component of mental illness if we are truly going to make any progress in reducing gun violence.”

The report landed barely a week before the start of a 90-day legislative session in which Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and numerous lawmakers have pledged to push a variety of measures in response to the Newtown massacre.

O’Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said the governor would “use the report as a guide” as he prepares a gun-control package but did not commit to any specific recommendations.

“We have to take time and review the report first,” Winfield said.

Addressing reporters shortly after the Connecticut shootings in December, O’Malley said he was looking at a range of proposals, including a statewide ban on assault rifles, as well as measures on school safety and mental health. Aides said Wednesday that the governor is still sorting through which proposals he will push after the session starts Wednesday.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), a gun-control advocate and chairman of the upper chamber’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he agrees with the thrust of the report — that the state needs to do more to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. But he said some of the recommendations were vague or otherwise problematic and could be difficult to translate into new laws.

Frosh pointed to a recommendation in the report that law enforcement officials launch an investigation and seize firearms from people who have made “substantiated” suicide threats or threats of “serious violence toward a reasonably identifiable victim or victims.”

“Refining that to a point where you can put it in a statute could be a challenge,” said Frosh, whose committee has jurisdiction over gun legislation. “I suspect we’ll get some push-back from folks who say you can’t take away my guns just because I yelled at someone in a bar.”

Last month, Frosh led a group of state senators at a news conference who said they would push for tighter regulations on firearms dealers and other gun-control measures that their colleagues have rejected in recent years.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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