Georgia lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill that aims to keep the mentally ill from having access to firearms on Tuesday. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Panel approves bill aimed at keeping guns from Georgia’s mentally ill

A fast-tracked bill that aims to keep guns out of the hands of Georgians with mental illnesses cleared a state House committee Tuesday, positioning the measure to make its way through the chamber as soon as Wednesday.

The bill, introduced Thursday, would lift a state mandate on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that requires officials to purge the records from the National Information Crime Center database of people unwillingly committed for mental health treatment after five years. Federal law includes a lifetime ban.

“All other states have already removed this five-year roll-off period,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville.

The measure, House Bill 999, comes after the Valentine’s Day shooting at a South Florida high school that left 17 people dead. The shootings have renewed the debate around access to firearms by those with mental illness.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, who is charged with murder in connection with the deaths, was reportedly depressed and has been accused of having an explosive temper. He had sought mental treatment but had not been involuntarily committed, so his purchase of an AR-15 was legal.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan told the House Judiciary Committee that the bureau has rescinded the names of 2,014 people who were involuntarily hospitalized for mental health or abuse treatment since 2013. In that time, Georgia has added about 10,000 new names to the list.

“This will put us in conformity with what is required at the federal level and put us in conformity with the rest of the states,” Keenan said.

Thomas Weaver, a Cherokee County resident, said he was concerned that people who have gone through treatment and gotten healthy would never be able to buy firearms again if the law is changed.

“I think the purpose of the five-year rule was to prevent someone from being indefinitely unable to get their rights restored even if (they get better),” he said.

State Rep. Micah Gravely, R-Douglasville, also took issue with the bill lacking a mechanism for previously institutionalized Georgians to regain their gun rights. He was the only panel member to vote against it.

Athens-Clarke County Probate Court Judge Susan Tate told the panel that someone who’s gone through mental health treatment can petition the court to have his or her access to firearms restored.

The measure approved by the panel Tuesday was different from what Coomer initially filed last week, which raised concerns from law enforcement and judges.

That proposal would have allowed Georgians to continue to purge the mental health records but provide a way for the judge who signed off on the initial commitment to order an individual’s name remain on the database for another five years if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that he or she remains a danger.

Weaver, who often testifies on gun-related bills, told lawmakers that while he was “sensitive to the national climate” after the Florida school shooting, he worried about lawmakers rushing the bill through the legislative process.

Lawmakers are working to get proposed legislation through at least one chamber by Wednesday, the administrative “deadline” for bills to move forward and still have a chance of becoming law this year.

However, there is always a possibility that lawmakers can amend a bill that has “crossed over” to include something that didn’t meet the deadline.

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