New York’s lawmakers and governor have not waited to see what, if any, changes to gun access will come out of Congress and the White House. Instead, they acted yesterday to pass a bill designed to limit the ability of some people with mental illness to obtain guns and expand the state’s tough assault-weapons ban. The state Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed on a bill that makes New York the first state to act on this issue since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month brought the issue to the fore. Passed by a 43-18 vote by the state Senate late Monday night, and being debated today by the state Assembly, which is expected to pass it, New York’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act would include a mandate that mental health care providers notify law-enforcement officials if they are aware of anyone who appears to be a danger to themselves or other individuals. Law-enforcement personnel would then check this name against gun-registration databases and have the authority to confiscate guns that such individuals may possess. Mental health care providers would not face penalties if they fail to report the identities of potentially dangerous patients as long as they are determined to have acted “in good faith.” The bill would also require gun owners to ensure that guns in their home are inaccessible to anyone who has been involuntarily committed, convicted of a crime, or the subject of a protective order.
Former APA President Paul Appelbaum, M.D., chair of APA’s Committee on Judicial Action and director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University, raised the issue of unintended consequences arising from the mental illness provision, telling Psychiatric News that “even if there is no reason to believe that the person has a weapon, it represents a major change in the rules of confidentiality that have always governed mental health treatment.” He added that the prospect of having their name reported to police officials “may be enough to discourage patients with suicidal or homicidal ideation from seeking treatment or from talking about their disturbing thoughts. It may discourage the very people we most want to have in treatment from seeking help.” Appelbaum emphasized that, “At the very least, it would seem prudent to hold hearing on the possible consequences of this sweeping legislation rather than adopting it in haste.”
To read Psychiatric News coverage of the mental health aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, click here