Leaders take on the spectrum of firearms law

OLYMPIA — From proposals to further restrict gun ownership by the mentally ill to an attempt to block federal regulation of firearms in the state, Central Washington lawmakers and officials are pushing at gun violence from multiple sides.

East Wenatchee State Rep. Cary Condotta has signed on to a House bill to nullify federal firearms restrictions, mirroring efforts in other states to assert sovereignty over the gun issue. Meanwhile, Grant County Prosecutor D. Angus Lee offered language to create longer waiting times for some mentally ill citizens before suspended firearms rights can be restored.

Lee’s proposal, sent in an open letter last week to District 13 state representatives and the media, seeks amendments to state law to restrict the firearms rights of those involuntarily committed for care of mental illness — including longer waiting times before the right to possess a gun is restored, and a greater burden of proof on the petitioner to demonstrate a lack of threat to himself or others.

Under current law, mental health professionals may petition a judge to commit a patient involuntarily if that patient is gravely disabled or “presents an imminent likelihood of serious harm.” Anyone involuntarily committed loses the right to possess a firearm, until they complete any court-ordered inpatient or outpatient treatment and petition a judge to restore that privilege. Lee’s revision adds a 12-month waiting period beyond the end of treatment.

And where current law demands the petitioner “prove by a preponderance of evidence” that he or she “no longer presents a substantial danger to himself or herself, or the public,” Lee would require “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence” — a higher legal standard.

“The current framework of our law is just insufficient to provide for public safety,” Lee said Tuesday. “… This is a reasonable restriction, limited and focused on keeping guns out of the hands of people who have already been found to be mentally ill.”

Lee began working on the proposal after a July hearing in which a Grant County man, who’d made threats against his neighbors, sought to regain his firearm rights after a period of mental-health commitment. The petitioner appeared close to winning his case, Lee said, until he behaved erratically in the courtroom.

He took the idea to state Reps. Judy Warnick and Matt Manweller, both District 13 Republicans, who said they might seek to incorporate the language in an existing bill if it reaches the House — Senate Bill 5282, which would create a statewide database of mental health commitment information that’s accessible to law enforcement. (Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, is one of that bill’s 15 sponsors.)

“I think that both sides of the aisle agree that the recent issues we’ve had with gun safety is as much a mental health problem as it is anything else,” Manweller said.

Warnick said she and Manweller have put forward four bills this year with input from Lee, including measures that would make it a crime for known gangmembers to possess firearms and turning a drive-by shooting conviction into a “strike” under Washington’s three-strikes sentencing law.

“If we can put some more teeth into existing laws, that’s the direction we’d like to go with these, at his suggestion,” Warnick said.

Convicted felons must sit out mandatory wait periods before reapplying for their firearms rights.

Lee said the lack of a waiting period for those previously committed to a mental heath facility is an imbalance, when a person convicted of a simple $800 theft must wait five years to reapply.

“That person probably does not represent as great of a danger to the public as somebody who’s been involuntarily committed for mental health reasons, yet they can reapply at any time,” Lee said.

“That’s a common perception, and that’s one I would object to,” countered Richard Weaver, chief executive of the nonprofit Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima. “Mentally ill people, by every statistical measure, are not a dangerous population.”

“We recognize the need to absolutely keep firearms out of the hands of people who aren’t in any mental shape to be handling them,” said Sandi Ando, Washington public policy chair of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We need to prevent tragedies where we can.”

But about 96 percent of all violent crime is committed by people who don’t have mental illness, she said. “The fact is, the people who are living with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators — much, much, much more likely.”

While mass shootings have focused heavy attention on firearms access for the mentally ill, a study released last week by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that only four of the last 43 U.S incidents involved a prior warning that the perpetrator might be unstable.

Ando said NAMI Washington hopes to push legislation to increase and fund access to mental-health care and streamline the involuntary commitment process. Under one NAMI proposal, medical professionals would only have to show courts that a patient presents a “substantial” likelihood of harming him- or herself or others, rather than an “imminent” likelihood.

Ando said the political debate risks demonizing Washington residents who are in need of treatment and understanding.

“I really don’t want to see the discussion devolve into, ‘Gee, those terrible people with mental illnesses, they’re all crazy and violent,’ because that really isn’t the case. We need to keep the discussion more rational than that.”

The Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee heard testimony on the database bill Tuesday. NAMI Washington opposes the bill as written, saying it conflicts with patient privacy and federal law.