By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Gun-rights groups and mental health advocates were in the unusual position of being on the same side of an issue this week, fearing that new state standards on gun purchases go too far.
The new rules, which took effect Aug. 1, require potential gun buyers to sign a waiver giving Maryland State Police access to their state mental health records.
The regulation is an "absolutely bogus and outrageous invasion of people's privacy," said Jeff Knox, director of operations for the Firearms Coalition. Mental health advocates worried that the change would further stigmatize people with mental illness.
But state police said the change "simply strengthened our ability under existing law" to check whether an applicant is eligible to buy a gun.
"Our job is to enforce what's in the law," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, and the standards regarding mental health treatment and gun purchasing are "clearly in the law."
Under current state law, individuals who have received court-ordered mental health treatment or spent 30 days in a state facility are ineligible to buy a gun. But Shipley said the state "had been flying blind" when trying to verify applicants' mental health history.
"We really had to take the applicant's word for it," he said.
Under the new policy, police can now check for themselves. Shipley said the department has checked about 3,000 applications since the new regulations took effect and has not found one potential buyer lying about their mental health history.
But he added that last April's mass slaying at Virginia Tech "showed us our vulnerability" in this area. Tech student Seung Hui Cho had been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment in Virginia, but was still able to buy the guns he used to kill himself and 32 others on campus.
Knox challenged Shipley's claim, saying the Virginia Tech massacre was "an aberration" and that "there's nothing we can do to anticipate" actions like Cho's.
Laura Cain, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center, agreed that the new regulations cannot "protect people from a random event." She said the gun restrictions in general can wrongly equate mental illness with dangerousness.
"People can be ordered into a hospital for a number of reasons, none of which necessarily makes them violent," she said.
Knox added that the new regulations come on top of what he called Maryland's already "ridiculous restrictions on firearms."
The state requires a seven-day waiting period on gun purchases, limits purchases to one per month and requires training for gun buyers. And while federal law states a person judged "mentally defective" cannot purchase guns, Maryland's law is even stricter, barring those "substantially impaired" mentally or socially from buying a gun.
Andrew Arulanandam, a National Rifle Association spokesman, said the NRA has believed "for decades" that the "federal standard is adequate."
Not all advocates are as concerned with the new regulations.
Herb Cromwell, executive director of Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, said that he was initially worried about how well mental health information would be "protected from widespread public access."
But Cromwell said he was assured by Brian Hepburn, director of Maryland's Mental Hygiene Administration, that patients' information would be kept secure. Cromwell said that his group "is probably fine" with the new regulations.
"Associating mental illness and dangerousness is always a problem," Cromwell said. "It's almost automatic, and it isn't fair."
But Cromwell said mental health professionals also understand the public's concern over public safety.
The new procedures "strike a pretty good balance," he said.