This story was corrected on July 27. An explanation follows the story.
Montgomery County police Sgt. Kenneth Berger has no doubt the work of his detectives has helped prevent a massacre like the theater shooting in Colorado.
Nearly every week, he said, his officers go on a call to investigate whether a person with mental health issues is armed, including with assault weapons.
The detectives who work off tips — often from family members, friends and neighbors of those they investigate — take along a crisis-intervention counselor trained in dealing with people with mental health issues, Berger said.
As of July 1, 25 people in Montgomery were taken into custody this year for emergency psychiatric evaluations and had their firearms seized. Their weapons, which have ranged from handguns to assault rifles, can be returned if a doctor signs off that the individual is not a threat to themselves or others, Berger said.
“The people we deal with who have mental disorders scare me more than the felons we deal with,” Berger said.
The type of assault weapon allegedly used by James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 moviegoers and wounding dozens of others in a crowded Aurora, Colo., theater, can be legally purchased in Maryland — after a seven-day waiting period and background check.
Maryland requires gun buyers to disclose if they have any mental health issues when they fill out the paperwork. But in his experience, Berger said it is not unusual to find multiple weapons in the home of those with mental health problems.
A bill sponsored by Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville that passed in this year’s General Assembly session created a task force, whose members were appointed last week, to study the issue of mental health and guns.
The task force members, who have not yet been named, will make recommendations, but currently the only prohibition is on those who were institutionalized in a state facility for at least 30 consecutive days, Simmons said.
“There are huge deficits in the law,” he said.
Maryland requires the seven-day waiting period to buy handguns and certain weapons designated as assault-types under state code, including the Colt AR-15 and its imitators, which would include the Smith & Wesson M&P15 used in the Colorado shooting.
Maryland has 45 types of weapons on the assault list, including similar models by other manufacturers. However, other rifles and shotguns require only an instant background check to a federal database with no waiting period, said Capt. James McCauley of the Maryland State Police Gun Enforcement Division.
The sales of regulated weapons are on the rise in Maryland. About 64,000 are expected to be sold this year compared with about 48,000 last year and 36,000 in 2010, McCauley said.
State police do not track how many of the regulated weapons were handguns or assault weapons, he said.
“It would take a year’s worth of work to break that out,” McCauley said.
Buyers have to fill out an application for a full background check, and state police have seven days to complete it, he said. The state police do about 250 checks per day, McCauley added.
An official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the ATF is prohibited by Congress from keeping track of assault weapon sales by state.
The federal government had banned the sale of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004, when President George W. Bush allowed the ban to expire.
“It was a terrible tragedy that law was allowed to lapse under the Bush administration,” said Vincent DeMarco, former executive director of the activist group Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. “Gun laws save lives.”
DeMarco lobbied successfully for state legislation that passed in 1994 banning gun magazines from holding more than 20 rounds. The alleged Colorado shooter had a drum magazine that held 100 rounds.
Some proponents of gun laws say if more people in the Aurora theater had been armed, they could have defended themselves against the shooter.
But Berger said it is impossible to know whether that would have stopped the shooter or only cost more lives from people caught in the crossfire in a dark theater. The shooter was wearing a bullet-resistant vest and helmet.
“Shooting is hard when you add all the stress and the darkness,” Berger said.
firstname.lastname@example.orgThis story should have said that members of a legislative task force to study the issue of mental health and guns were appointed last week.