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A state task force is recommending that the General Assembly pass legislation to require physicians and counselors to report violent threats to local law enforcement and Maryland State Police, as part of the process for determining whether an individual should be granted a license to own a regulated firearm.

The Task Force to Study Access of Individuals with Mental Illness to Firearms, created in the 2012 regular session, was looking into whether changes should be made to regulations in an effort to keep guns out of the hands of potentially violent individuals with mental illness. The task force’s findings were released in a report last week.

“We don’t want to have situations where people are afraid of being open with their clinicians,” said Patrick Dooley, chief of staff of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and co-chairman of the task force, adding that there was some concern from mental health advocates on the task force that reporting requirements might violate patient confidentiality. “That’s why we were very specific in saying that it has to be a credible threat against a specific individual or group.”

Currently, there is no requirement that violent threats be reported to law enforcement.

“I think it’s important to note that the reporting recommendation is not specific to people with mental illness,” said Dan Martin, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association of Maryland and a task force member. “When a person makes a verbal or physical threat that’s specific to one person or group, whether it’s a person seeing their psychiatrist or psychologist or an educator or a social worker, that should be reported.”

Firearms also should be seized by law enforcement once a report of a threat is made by a health care provider or law enforcement officer, and the threat is substantiated, the task force report said.

Currently, in approving ownership of a regulated firearm, mental health issues are taken into account by state police only if an individual is confined to a mental health facility for more than 30 days, or if an individual has been charged with a crime and is deemed incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible. Regulated firearms in Maryland include assault rifles and handguns.

The report also calls for increased training for law enforcement officers in recognizing severe mental illness and education in firearm laws for health care professionals.

However, the report also highlights the need for continued study and states that the task force will continue to work on the issue until May 31, when the authorization for the group sunsets. Dooley said the panel will look at how mental illness, coupled with substance abuse or other factors, can predict violence.

The work of the 17-member task force of law enforcement officers, mental health providers and gun rights advocates was thrust into the spotlight Dec. 14, just two weeks before a report was due to the General Assembly, after a shooting in Newtown, Conn., left 20 children and six adults dead in an elementary school.

“When tragedies like this happen, it creates an environment where we can either use this to make our children safer, or we can ignore it,” said Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville, who sponsored the legislation to create the task force.

Simmons plans to reintroduce legislation that will require court clerks to notify state police anytime an individual is required by the court to be screened for mental health issues.

Currently, state police only use information from convictions to determine whether to allow access to a regulated firearm, and not information from a case that results in probation before judgment or acquittal where the defendant may have been ordered to undergo mental health evaluations. While the order for the evaluation should not automatically preclude an individual from purchasing a regulated firearm, law enforcement should be able to explore the circumstances that led to the evaluation order, Simmons said.

“Our information collection net has more holes than Swiss cheese,” Simmons said, noting that neighboring states Virginia and Delaware have significantly higher rates of recording mental health evaluations. “When a court orders someone to a mental health evaluation, the state police should have access to that.”

While the task force report, which was released Jan. 2, references the narrow circumstances under which mental health is taken into account, Dooley said the group could not reach consensus about whether to widen the scope of mental health considerations.

In the session that starts Wednesday, a group of Maryland state senators plans to introduce legislation to tighten regulations for concealed carry permits and reporting requirements for gun dealers, and to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

hnunn@gazette.net