By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News
July 18, 2007
Their names would be added to a federal list of people who, like felons, are banned from buying guns.
"We do need to do this thoughtfully, but we have to come up with a way to prevent the sale of a gun to somebody who has been diagnosed to be a public safety danger and who might be on the verge of shooting somebody," said Les Gara, a Democrat who represents downtown Anchorage.
The proposal worries mental health advocates, who say it equates being mentally ill with being a criminal.
"(It) erroneously assumes that anyone who's ever been involuntarily hospitalized for treatment of mental illness is any more dangerous than anyone else," said Bill Herman, senior program officer at the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
"That's not true," he said.
Gara's proposal is part of a national debate over gun laws after a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people before taking his own life in April. The shooter had once been evaluated by a local psychiatric hospital and declared by a magistrate to present "an imminent danger to self or others" well before he bought two handguns, according to news reports.
A federal law already bars people who are believed to be dangerously mentally ill from buying firearms, but enforcement is spotty.
In April, the FBI told the New York Times that 28 states -- including Alaska -- don't give mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
That means when an Alaska gun dealer runs a background check on someone buying a pistol, the dealer doesn't know if that person has been, say, committed to Alaska Psychiatric Institute.
After the Virginia Tech shootings, Gov. Tim Kaine ordered his state to start providing mental health records for background checks. Gara hopes Gov. Sarah Palin will do the same. But in a July 11 letter to Gara, Attorney General Talis Colberg said that decision is better left to the state Legislature.
The issue needs a public debate because it pits questions of public safety against a patient's right to privacy, said Monica Jenicek, special assistant to the attorney general.
Jenicek said she didn't look into whether Palin could legally order the state to start giving mental health records to the feds, but said the fact that the Virginia governor was able to do it means Palin probably could too.
Among the questions that need to be answered, Jenicek said, is whether someone who was involuntarily hospitalized for only, say, 72 hours, would still lose their right to buy firearms.
Gara said people should be
able to regain the ability to buy guns if they are medically
cleared and no longer considered dangerous.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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