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.

So yes, there is some danger that a person might lose their firearms rights because they show up at a mental hospital and ask for help. However, showing up at the local mental hospital and telling the doctor that you feel really depressed and don’t see much reason to go on living still isn’t going to qualify as “imminent danger.”  If you talk about committing suicide, especially if you give a detailed description of how you are going to do it real soon? Yes, you probably aren’t going to be walking out the door. And maybe you shouldn’t.

As I mentioned, in 1960 or 1970 a person with substantial mental  problems could be hospitalized on an emergency basis very quickly, and while there was a legal process to make this a long-term commitment, it was not hopelessly difficult. Today, long-term commitment is really hard -- and that is part of why we are now used to mass murder as just part of modern life.

The goal of HB-1355 is to move us a little closer to the situation as it was before deinstitutionalization took effect. But unlike moving us back to the days before the ACLU decided that mentally ill people should enjoy the dignity of freezing to death on the streets rather than receive mental health care, this is an attempt to make guns (and only that one category of deadly weapon) a bit harder to get for those with serious mental illness problems.

Mental health professionals are concerned that some people will not seek mental health help for fear of being disarmed. Yes, this is probably going to happen -- people will delay seeking help for fear of this, and this is a real tragedy. But what about people who have been hearing the signals from Mars telling them it is time to rise up and kill the zombies next door? We joke about it, but these things happen often. People having hallucinations that lead to horrible crimes are people that ideally would be hospitalized. But since our society isn’t willing to spend the money to help those in need, we’ll have to go for a cheap and clumsy solution: make it harder for those with really serious problems to get guns, and hope that they don’t kill as many people with the other readily available deadly weapons.

The intent of HB-1355 is good. It may even disarm a few people who are so obviously crazy that no private party will sell them a gun, or a knife, or a machete, or an axe. But I am not holding my breath on seeing murder rates fall in a measurable way because of it. At the same time, it is a carefully written law that may prevent a few severely mentally ill people from doing serious self-harm.

And it is not the apocalyptic gun control measure that the National Association for Gun Rights seems to think it is.