Mental Illness, Access to Firearms Major Risk Factors for Suicide
Legislation Assembly Democrats Patricia Egan Jones, Gabriela Mosquera and Shavonda Sumter sponsored to prevent individuals with an elevated risk of engaging in violence due to mental illness from causing harm to themselves and others gained approval from the General Assembly on Thursday.
“For someone who may be struggling with disturbing thoughts, having access to a firearm significantly increases the likelihood of suicide,” said Jones (D-Camden/Gloucester). “By reducing their access to a lethal weapon, New Jersey can help prevent fatalities among those with serious mental health concerns.”
Suicide – the 10th leading cause of death in the United States overall and the second leading cause of death among people ages 15-34 – is substantially more likely among those with mental disorders, Jones noted.
“The vast majority of people who have a mental illness will never commit an act of violence, but multiple mass shootings, domestic violence homicides and suicides in this country could have been prevented if people known to have serious mental health concerns did not have access to a firearm,” said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Mental health professionals know the signs to look out for and are in the best position to determine whether someone poses an imminent threat to him- or herself or someone else.”
The bill (A-2938) would expand the “duty to warn and protect” by requiring practitioners of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, nursing, clinical social work or marriage counseling who determine a patient to be a threat to him- or herself or others to report the patient to law enforcement. If law enforcement then determines that the patient has access to a firearm – and thus has an actionable means of carrying out a previously-communicated threat of serious physical violence – the courts ultimately may order the patient to surrender any firearms in his or her possession.
“State law regarding the qualifications for permits and purchaser ID cards makes it clear that the duty to protect public health, safety and welfare is paramount,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Individuals who express an explicit intent to harm themselves or someone else demonstrate that it is unsafe for them to handle firearms. It is in everyone’s best interest to cut off their access to guns until a medical doctor or a psychiatrist determines it can be reinstated.”
Under current law, a “duty to warn and protect” is incurred when: 1) a patient has expressed a threat of imminent, serious physical violence against a readily identifiable individual or against himself and 2) the professional has reason to believe circumstances exist that would allow the patient to act on the threat.
If both conditions are met, the practitioner must do one or more of the following:
- arrange for the patient to be admitted voluntarily to a psychiatric unit of a general hospital, a short-term care facility, a special psychiatric hospital or a psychiatric facility;
- initiate procedures for involuntary commitment to treatment of the patient to an outpatient treatment provider, a short-term care facility, a special psychiatric hospital or a psychiatric facility;
- advise a local law enforcement authority of the patient’s threat and the identity of the intended victim;
- warn the intended victim or, if the intend victim is a minor, his or her parent or guardian; or
- if the patient is a minor and threatens to commit suicide or bodily injury upon himself, warn his or her parent or guardian.
Under the bill, a licensed practitioner of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, nursing, clinical social work or marriage counseling also would be required to notify the chief of police of the municipality in which the patient resides that a duty to warn and protect has been incurred and provide the police chief with that patient’s name and other non-clinical identifying information. The chief then would use the information to determine whether the patient is authorized to possess a firearm. As current state law prohibits those who have been confined for a mental disorder and those for whom authorization would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare from receiving authorization to possess a firearm, under the bill, any identification card or permit the patient was issued would then be void and subject to revocation by the Superior Court, and the court may order the patient to surrender his or her firearms to the county prosecutor.
If a patient submits to the Superior Court a certificate of a medical doctor or psychiatrist licensed in New Jersey or other satisfactory proof that he or she is no longer suffering from a medical disorder that would interfere with the safe handling of firearms, the patient’s firearms purchaser identification cards or other permit or license then may be reinstated.
The measure, which received the Assembly approved 45-24-5, now awaits further Senate consideration.