Md. Mental Records to Be Checked In Gun Buys

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has quietly issued a new gun purchase regulation that requires prospective buyers to sign a waiver releasing their mental health records to the Maryland State Police.

The rule, which came in response to the killings at Virginia Tech and took effect Aug. 1, is intended to help police determine whether someone should be prevented for mental health reasons from buying a gun. It would apply to people who have been ordered into treatment by a court or who have checked into a state psychiatric hospital for at least 30 days.

State officials are trying to close the kind of loophole that allowed Seung Hui Cho to purchase the handguns he used to kill 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech in April. A court had found Cho to be dangerously mentally ill, but that information was not available in the computer database used by the gun dealers who sold him the weapons.

"We're trying to keep people who the law says can't buy a gun from buying one," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. "This will enable us to determine if you are telling the truth as far as state facilities are concerned."

Most inpatient treatment in Maryland takes place in state facilities rather than private ones, advocates say.

Maryland is one of many states trying to balance privacy rights and public safety as they consider new mental health policies and tighter restrictions on gun sales after the Virginia Tech massacre. The new regulation does not require public hearings or the General Assembly's approval because it clarifies existing law, officials said.

The change caught some gun rights and mental health advocates by surprise, and they expressed concern about the effect on gun buyers' privacy, particularly in cases involving voluntary psychiatric treatment sought years before.

Maryland's gun laws are among the nation's strictest, with a seven-day waiting period, a training requirement for buyers and relatively tough regulations on issuing permits to carry a firearm. And where a potential buyer's mental health is concerned, state law is more restrictive than the federal standard.

Federal law prohibits gun sales to people who have been judged "mentally defective," which includes people determined by a court or other legal authority to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness. In Maryland, police are also directed to deny a permit to someone whose mental or social functioning is "substantially impaired," making treatment "necessary or advisable."

Someone whose state of mind is at issue can buy a gun in Maryland after obtaining a note from a doctor declaring that person to be in good mental health. But some suggest that liability concerns will discourage psychiatrists from certifying patients.

In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) tightened a loophole concerning gun sales to mentally ill customers with an executive order in April instructing state agencies to block sales to those involuntarily committed to inpatient or outpatient mental health treatment.

Maryland officials acknowledge that they have not enforced the standards in many cases because state police rarely collected mental health information when conducting background checks. Potential gun buyers must answer yes or no to about a dozen questions on a form provided by gun sellers, including whether they have been hospitalized for mental illness. But officials said investigators rarely checked the forms against records on psychiatric hospital stays kept by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company