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Firearms panel wary of sharing mental health data


PROVIDENCE — Members of a task force reviewing whether Rhode Island should provide more mental health records to the FBI’s firearm background check system said Thursday that sharing the information could inadvertently prevent many people from owning a gun, even if they don’t pose a danger.

That’s because the definitions used in state law relating to mental illness are different from state to state, and depending on the records Rhode Island chose to provide to the federal background check system, people could be disqualified simply for seeking inpatient mental health treatment, failing a drug test or admitting themselves to a drug rehab facility.

“We need to be careful with our definitions and our language,” said task force member Craig Stenning, director of the state’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. “It could either be a large number of files and records, or a small number.”

States differ widely in what information they provide to the federal firearm background check system, although most, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, provide more mental health records than Rhode Island.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, a member of the task force, said lawmakers may have to consider changes to several state laws relating to mental illness to ensure that the state doesn’t end up providing too many records.

“Rhode Island has some very strong mental health privacy laws and for good reason,” she said. “What we don’t want is someone with a mental health issue not seeking treatment. If Massachusetts and Connecticut are compliant, what are they doing differently?”

The Firearms Safety Task Force was created by lawmakers to review current laws and study policies on the use of mental health records in gun background checks in the wake of last year’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn. People with a history of mental illness have been responsible for several of the nation’s recent gun massacres, including those in Virgina, Arizona and Colorado.

The task force includes lawmakers, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers and gun rights advocates. It is set to report its findings to the General Assembly in January.

Meanwhile, in Exeter, a special election will be held on the recall of four town councilors criticized for supporting a proposal to change the way the town issues concealed weapons permits.

The town’s Board of Canvassers verified the last of four petitions seeking the recall election on Thursday. Board Chairwoman Mary Hall says each of the petitions had at least 575 signatures — well over the 496 signatures required.

The special election must be held within 20 to 60 days.

The four council members wanted to switch the responsibility for issuing concealed weapons from the town clerk to the state attorney general’s office.

Gun rights advocates say the council ignored concerns that the change would have made it more difficult to obtain a permit. The change was not approved by the legislature.



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