A customer at Stoddard’s Range and Guns loads bullets before he shoots at a target on Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia bill aims to keep guns from mentally ill — critics say it won’t

A new Republican House bill, purported to make it harder for mentally ill people in Georgia to have access to guns, would do little to prevent them from obtaining firearms, judges and law enforcement officials said.

Under Georgia law, the names of those committed to hospitals for mental health treatment or to address alcohol or drug addictions are removed from the national firearms database five years after their involuntary commitments.

Federal law prohibits anyone committed to a hospital for treatment from ever buying or possessing a firearm. Georgia is the only state in the nation that purges mental health treatment records from National Information Crime Center, the FBI database used to check if someone is eligible to purchase a gun or obtain a firearms permit.

The legislation proposed Thursday by Rep. Chris Coombs, R-Cartersville, would allow Georgia to continue to purge those records but provides a way for the judge who signed off on the initial commitment, usually a probate court judge, to order an individual’s name remain on NCIS for another five years if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that they remain to be a danger.

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The deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at a South Florida high school has focused fresh attention on gun control measures, especially those dealing with the access of the mentally ill to weapons. Nikolas Cruz, 19, who is charged with 17 counts of murders, was reportedly depressed and allegedly had an explosive temper. He had been seeking mental health care but had not been involuntarily committed for treatment so his purchase of an AR15 was legal.

February 21, 2018 - Atlanta, Ga: A protester holds a sign reading, “Not one more,” during the Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day rally at Liberty Plaza Wednesday, February 21, 2018, in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Athens-Clarke County Probate Court Judge Susan Tate said Friday she was concerned that House Bill 999 doesn’t provide a mechanism for having an individual re-evaluated and would do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of those who, under federal law, are ineligible to possess them.

“It provides for us to hear new character evidence and testimony,” Tate said. “There is no provision that would allow us to order a new evaluation. So we might not have any current mental health evaluations. It does place a new burden on the court to decide whether public safety or public interest would be served by their names not being purged. I don’t know that we would have the ability to have any mental health professional do any evaluation.”

The Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia said in a statement, “We understand the bill is evolving so we are evolving with it. Right now the council has no official position on the bill.”

Coomer, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to telephone messages or an email seeking comment.

But Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation which supports ending Georgia’s practice of purging names from the NCIS database, said legislators have said they will address the GBI’s concerns as the bill moves through committee and to the floor for debate.

8/16/14-ATLANTA: Bruce Greenfield carried his gun in a custom holster during the 6th Annual GeorgiaCarry.org convention at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel in Atlanta on Saturday August 16th, 2014. Second Amendment supporters celebrated Georgian's right to bear arms which has been expanded after the passage of HB60, a bill that gained international attention. (Photo by Phil Skinner / For the AJC) Gun owners lost an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court today regarding guns in school zones. (AJC Photo)
Photo: Maureen Downey/Get Schooled

“We want to do away with the purge requirement,” Keenan said. “It’s a public safety issue. I believe there is support in the Legislature to change the purge requirement.”

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, has proposed a similar bill but hers says Georgia will never remove names from NCIS. Her bill passed the Senate last year and is pending in a House committee, which is chaired by one of the co-sponsors of HB 999.

“It’s an attempt to attack the same issue my legislation was,” Parent said. “I don’t like it but I want the policy to change. … That’s the most important thing. The rest is just political noise that most Georgians don’t care about.”

Since 2013, Georgia has purged 2,014 names of people who were involuntarily hospitalized for mental health or abuse treatment from the FBI’s database. In that same time, Georgia has added 9,741 new names to the list.

Those numbers do not include people who were ordered to have an evaluation for mental health or addiction who volunteered to go into treatment rather than be committed long-term.

“Those people never get reported and we don’t know who they are unless they answer the questions truthfully on the firearms application,” Tate said. “These are often people who get sent for involuntary evaluation every two or three months on the basis of either a court order or a mental health professional’s certification, without ever being ordered to receive treatment even though they are among our most seriously mentally ill.”

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