Bipartisan Mental Health Bill Could Reduce Gun Violence

The following op-ed ran in the December 18 edition of the News Journal

By Rep. Michael Barbieri

Delawareans witnessed an unusual sight in the state House of Representatives this past May – lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, gun rights advocates and those pushing for legislation to reduce gun violence overwhelmingly agreeing on an issue.

The House passed a bill to keep firearms out of the hands of those determined to be a danger to themselves or others by a bipartisan 40-1 vote. Legislators from both parties stood up and spoke positively about the spirit of compromise and working together to craft a bill on a critical, sensitive topic that nearly everyone could support. Even the National Rifle Association, which vehemently opposed every other “gun control” bill introduced this session, withdrew any opposition and conceded that House Bill 88 would not infringe upon the rights of gun owners.

In their own words, the NRA stated, “Through a lot of hard work, our concerns with the bill as initially proposed have been addressed… With the associated amendments, we have withdrawn our opposition to the bill.”

I make this point to show that as we pass the one-year anniversary of the mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary – an event that sparked a nationwide effort to reduce gun violence – there continues to be mental health-related gun violence throughout the country. But there is a very real, very attainable bill to reduce such gun violence in front of the Delaware General Assembly. When we return to session next month, we have the opportunity to pass House Bill 88, which will protect individuals who have the potential to harm themselves or others when in a state of mental distress. And we have the opportunity to continue doing this in a bipartisan fashion.

Mental health professionals, the NRA, law enforcement and others agree that it is imperative that we look at our approach to mental health issues as it relates to gun violence. This bill will accomplish that while still respecting law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Under this bill, the burden of proof to prohibit someone – even temporarily – from possessing firearms is high: prosecutors must meet a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, the highest standard available.

Under HB 88, people could be barred from possessing or purchasing firearms if they are determined by a court to be “a danger to self or others,” individuals found “guilty but mentally ill” or “not guilty by reason of insanity,” and defendants found incompetent to stand trial. The bill also creates a responsibility for mental health professionals to notify police if, in their professional opinion, they believe a patient is a danger to themselves or others. After investigating, if police believe there is a threat, the Attorney General’s Office would petition the court to have the person relinquish their firearms.

As a licensed mental health professional, I see firsthand the need for such a law. We often refer to law enforcement as the front line of defense against crime. But we are seeing more and more that some who commit acts of gun violence do not have a criminal history trail. Mental health professionals can play a key role in getting guns out of the hands of people who are not thinking clearly and present a danger to themselves or others before they take action. That can save lives, which is our core goal.

The House of Representatives enthusiastically passed this bill in bipartisan fashion this spring because members knew that it is the right thing to do. I am optimistic that the Senate, with several months to review and better understand the legislation, can pass this bill and send it to Governor Markell next month to complete the task and take another step in reducing gun violence in Delaware.