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Senate OKs mental health, handgun bill

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 15, 2015 at 11:27 AM

The state Senate approved a bill Thursday requiring mental health professionals report to police patients they judge could seriously harm or kill "reasonably identifiable victims."

The bill, a response to mass shootings in states like Connecticut and Colorado, fills in several holes in existing state law regarding handgun carry permits.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, voted in favor of the bill.

“I think that the whole thing people have been saying since the Newtown [Conn.] shooting is that that young man had mental problems, and they should have caught it before all of that happened,” said Beavers.

Lawmakers hope this bill will help do so by getting law enforcement involved early on.

Mental health professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists are already required to provide notification about potentially dangerous circumstances, but they have the option of telling the person's family, those against whom threats are made or police.

Under the bill, police must be notified. The information received would be entered into existing state databases used for checking on gun purchases, as well as those who apply for or already have a state-issued handgun-carry permit to go armed in public.

It also requires court clerks to notify the state within three days about involuntary commitments instead of once every three months.

Lebanon police Chief Scott Bowen said he fully supports the bill.

“I’m sure it’s going to open up more calls for us that we’ll have to go out and investigate,” said Bowen. “It’s time consuming. But if it stops one killing – especially these school shootings and these mass killings – then obviously, it’s paid off.”

The bill passed on a 33-0 vote with little debate and moved to the House for debate.

"Mass violence of any sort is a tragic occurrence," said Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the chief impetus for the bill carried by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin.

But he said "the worst tragedy results when the state overreacts to a mass shooting by restricting the Second Amendment rights of the law-abiding. This bill focuses not on inanimate objects but on the very real issue of mental health."

The intent is to focus on the mentally ill "while leaving the law-abiding gun owner free to exercise his God-given constitutional right," Ramsey said.

Proponents say the reported information is kept confidential and used only for the purpose of processing gun-related background checks.

"I feel pretty good about it," said state Mental Health Commissioner Doug Varney, whose office worked with sponsors on the legislation. "The main safeguard I think we're looking at generally is we want to make sure that people who are mentally ill or could be potentially dangerous do not have access to firearms."

At the same time, "We want to make sure that we protect individuals' rights and that too wide a net isn't cast when you try to do that," Varney said.

Mark Greene, a lobbyist who represents state psychologists, said the group was able to work with Varney's office and sponsors and get more comfortable with the legislation.

– The Chattanooga Times Free Press contributed to this report via MCT

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