Florida’s Mental Illness and Guns Bill: Sensible, or a Gun Grab?

I have written here before about the connection between the most severe mental illnesses -- psychoses such as schizophrenia -- and murder, and specifically mass murder. You will not be surprised that I am therefore interested in and concerned about Florida HB-1355, which changes Florida law concerning firearms disabilities for the mentally ill. This bill is now waiting for the signature of Florida Governor Rick Scott, having passed both houses of the legislature with a total of one vote against it.

If you don’t follow these matters, you probably assume that the NRA is fighting it and that mental health professionals are for it. And you would have that completely backward.

It has the backing of well-known pro-gun advocates such as Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for NRA and United Sportsmen of Florida.  It has the active opposition of mental health worker organizations in Florida, who are concerned that it will discourage people with serious mental health problems from seeking help for fear that they will be permanently disarmed.

What does the bill do? If I give you an oversimplified explanation, it sounds really scary: people who admit themselves to a mental hospital lose the right to own a gun. Actually reading the bill itself, however, shows that it is a careful balancing act: you can only lose your right to own a gun if you admit yourself into a mental hospital and the examining physician concludes that you are an “imminent danger to yourself or others” and the examining physician certifies that if you had not voluntarily admitted yourself, the physician would have filed a petition with the court to involuntarily admit you. Also, there is a procedure to get your gun rights back at a later time.

What’s this “voluntarily admit or we’ll have the court involuntarily commit you” stuff? It is often the case that people with serious mental illness problems will only reluctantly admit themselves to a hospital. Why reluctantly? Because they have serious mental illness problems. At the same time, they know that if they voluntarily admit themselves, they can usually check themselves out a few days later. But if they are involuntarily committed, it’s not so easy to leave.

Doctors prefer not to involuntarily commit people with significant mental illness problems; the paperwork and legal struggle is substantial. In 1960, or even 1970, such a person might have been involuntarily committed without much of a struggle, leading to a lifetime firearms disability under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. These days, it takes a pretty extraordinary level of proof to get someone involuntarily committed. And sometimes, just being in a therapeutic environment away from the stresses of the outside world does a lot of good for the patient. If at all possible, doctors prefer to have patients admit themselves.