DOVER, Delaware — The state House on Tuesday approved two gun control measures proposed by Gov. Jack Markell following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school last year.
House members voted 40-1 to approve and send to the Senate a bill expanding the ability of authorities to prohibit people with mental health issues from having guns. The other bill, which would require gun owners to report the loss or theft of weapons to police within seven days, passed by a 22-19 margin. It now goes to Markell for his signature.
The mental health bill establishes a process to keep a person declared by a court to be a danger to himself or others from having access to guns.
Under current law, a person who has been involuntarily committed to a hospital or mental health institution for a mental disorder can be prohibited from possessing a gun. Lawmakers want to expand the mental health prohibition to include individuals considered to be a danger to themselves or others. Criminal defendants found guilty but mentally ill, not guilty by reason of insanity, or incompetent to stand trial also would be prohibited from having guns.
The bill would require mental health providers to call police if they believe a person poses a danger to himself or others. Police would investigate and would refer the case to the attorney general's office if they believe that person shouldn't have access to a gun.
The attorney general's office could then ask a judge to prohibit the person from owning or possessing a gun. The judge also could order the seizure of any guns that the person owns.
"This is not a process that will be lightly engaged in," deputy attorney general Steve Wood said.
Critics, however, raised concerns about patient privacy and the right of law-abiding citizens to possess firearms.
Lawmakers approved the bill only after adding an amendment changing the standard of proof for declaring a person to be dangerous from "a preponderance of evidence," as the bill initially stated, to "clear and convincing evidence."
Lobbyists for the National Rifle Association made it clear they would oppose the bill unless the standard of proof was raised.
"The bill has actually come a long way since its initial introduction," NRA lobbyist Shannon Alford told lawmakers. "... We no longer consider this legislation particularly threatening to law-abiding gun owners."
Lawmakers also revised the bill to define mental health professionals who would be required to report that they believe a person is a danger to himself or others and to specify that civil proceedings for determining whether a person is dangerous will be closed to the public.
Another amendment allows someone declared dangerous to turn over any guns to a designated person outside the home, rather than just having police confiscate them.
The gun reporting bill approved by House members Tuesday requires gun owners to notify police within seven days of discovering that a gun has been lost or stolen.
Supporters say the bill can help authorities crack down on straw purchases, in which people buy guns for others who aren't supposed to have them. Authorities note that people who make straw purchases often escape prosecution by telling investigators who trace a gun back to them that it was lost or stolen.
But Republican opponents argued that the bill will do nothing to stop straw purchasers or other criminals from claiming that they didn't know a gun traced back to them after a crime was missing.
The reporting bill narrowly cleared the state Senate earlier this month after lawmakers extended the reporting period from 48 hours to seven days. They also reduced the proposed misdemeanor penalty for a first offense to civil fines for the first two offenses. Only upon a third or subsequent offense would a person be subject to a felony charge.