Advocates Support Bill to Reduce Gun Violence and Save Lives

WILMINGTON – Delaware clergy, members of the mental health community, advocates, a national gun policy expert and family members of a victim of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., gathered Thursday to call for the revival and passage of legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of those who present a danger to themselves or others.

The Delaware Coalition Against Gun Violence, which has supported several measures during the past year designed to reduce gun violence, said House Bill 88 will save lives by establishing a legal process to keep firearms out the hands of those who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others. HB 88 overwhelmingly passed the House by a bipartisan 40-1 vote last year and is currently pending in the Senate.

“We have seen over the past year that bills aimed at reducing gun violence can divide legislators and residents, but on the issue of mental health and firearms, there’s almost universal agreement. Mental health professionals, the NRA, law enforcement and others came together on this bill,” said Liane Sorenson, a former state senator and board chair of the Coalition. “We saw in 2012 in Aurora how such a law could have prevented such a tragedy. Put plainly, this bill will save lives and has addressed many of the concerns raised by gun owners. We need members in the Senate to take action when they return next week.”

Sandy Phillips’ 24 year-old-daughter, Jessica, was killed in the 2012 Aurora Cinemark Theater massacre in Colorado in which 11 others were killed and 58 wounded. The alleged killer, James Holmes, had been identified as dangerous by his mental health professional after he told her wanted to kill people, but there was no Colorado law that allowed police to act on this information. Since then, Ms. Phillips has joined the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as a campaign manager.

“While no one policy will prevent every tragedy, what I do know is the person that killed my daughter in Aurora had shown warning signs that he had become a danger to society and himself,” Ms. Phillips said. “The Delaware proposal, House Bill 88, would go a long way in helping keep guns out of the hands of people that present a danger to themselves and others.”

HB 88’s lead sponsor, Rep. Michael Barbieri, is a licensed mental health professional. He negotiated a compromise with the National Rifle Association and its local affiliates last year that led the group to withdraw any opposition and concede that HB 88 would not infringe upon the rights of gun owners.

“This bill will save lives while still respecting law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights,” Rep. Barbieri said. “The House enthusiastically passed this bill in bipartisan fashion last 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 to complete the task and take another step in reducing gun violence in Delaware.”

There is widespread agreement that it is imperative we look at our approach to mental health issues as it relates to firearms because nationally, only 1 percent of all firearm background checks are denied due to mental health reasons.

“Mental Health Association in Delaware was very pleased that Attorney General Beau Biden and his office reached out to the mental health community as they developed the bill to gain extensive input from the community,” said Jim Lafferty, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, which is a statewide, nonprofit organization to promote mental health. “We feel that this legislation is very responsible and we support it.”

Shannon Frattaroli is an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she is core faculty at the Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“States are realizing the importance of having systems in place when someone poses a serious risk of harm to themselves or others,” Dr. Frattaroli said. “HB88 will provide a mechanism for Delaware clinicians, law enforcement officers, and the courts to work together to minimize the risk to public safety when a person's behaviors suggest they may be more likely to commit violence.”

Several members of the Delaware clergy attended Thursday’s event to offer their support for HB 88. The Rev. Robert P. Hall is executive director of the Delaware Ecumenical Council on Children and Families and also the pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Newark.

“The faith community is always opposed to the wanton destruction of human life.  It is especially wicked when the lives lost are children,” Rev. Hall said. “Too many children, let alone too many people in general, have been lost to gun violence. It is a sacred thing to prevent these losses. It is also a sacred thing to protect those with special needs and to keep them from committing acts that they would not otherwise commit.”

The bill was drafted by Attorney General Beau Biden’s office with significant input from the mental health community and other stakeholders, and is sponsored by Rep. Barbieri and Sen. David Sokola.

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 individual declared a person prohibited from possessing or purchasing a firearm.