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(TRENTON) - The General Assembly on Thursday approved a two-bill package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Troy Singleton, Tim Eustace, Joseph Cryan, Jason O'Donnell, Annette Quijano, Charles Mainor and John McKeon to tighten mental health oversight for gun owners.
The measures are part of the comprehensive Assembly Democratic anti-gun violence initiative, which is comprised of roughly two dozen bills.
The first bill (A-3717), sponsored by Lampitt, Singleton and Eustace, would make it mandatory for the state to submit certain mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The measure was approved by a vote of 71-5-1.
"A crucial mental health reporting failure is what allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to purchase weapons despite being adjudicated mentally ill. Clearly, there needs to be greater coordination in incorporating mental health records into the background check process," said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). "The NICS relies on states to submit this information. If states fail to do so, the database will have incomplete or inaccurate records, allowing some individuals to purchase guns who should be prohibited. The goal of this legislation is to avoid that at all costs."
The U.S. Department of Justice established the NICS for federally licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers. The NICS attains or accesses records from state police, local police and other agencies to determine if the prospective gun purchaser is prohibited from owning a firearm.
"These days it's harder in some states to buy cold medicine than it is to buy a gun," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "A clean bill of mental health is a crucial component to building a safer gun culture."
New Jersey has begun the process of implementing an electronic system to submit mental health records to the NICS, however submission of these records is not mandatory under current state law. The provisions of this bill would make the submission mandatory.
"A comprehensive and coordinated approach to mental health background checks is the most effective way to reduce the possibility of guns ending up in the wrong hands," said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). "Coupling this with the oversight of licensed professionals, is a smart approach to dealing with any correlation between gun violence and mental illness."
The second bill (A-3754), sponsored by Cryan, O'Donnell, Quijano, Mainor, and McKeon, would require the Attorney General to seize a firearm that is in the possession of a person determined by a mental health professional to be likely to engage in conduct that poses a threat of serious harm to the patient or another person. The bill was approved by a vote of 46-29.
"In nearly every major shooting tragedy we've seen in recent years, the shooter was reported to have had a history of mental illness," said Cryan (D-Union). "This bill will help us close some of the fatal gaps that allow guns to land in the wrong hands."
"This bill will create a red flag system when a trained professional spots the undeniable warning signs of potential violence in someone with mental illness," said O'Donnell, who is also Public Safety Director for the City of Bayonne. "Proactive steps like this can help prevent potential tragedies down the road."
Specifically, the bill would require licensed medical professionals in New Jersey, including psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, and nurses, to report to the Attorney General when, in their reasonable professional judgment, a patient they are treating is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to that patient or others.
"Licensed medical professionals are trained to spot the warning signs of potential violence in a patient," said Quijano (D-Union). "If this information can be used to prevent a potential gun tragedy, then we need to create a system to streamline this process."
"This is one component in a comprehensive package of bills that will hopefully help curb gun violence," said Mainor (D-Hudson), who is also a detective with the Jersey City Police Department. "By being proactive, we can help avoid the grief that's become all too common in the aftermath of such tragedies."
"Licensed medical professionals have the utmost respect for patient confidentiality, but at the same time, they are uniquely trained to spot the warning signs of violence," said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). "This bill goes to great lengths to protect a patient's privacy while still putting public safety first."
The Attorney General would receive the patient's name and other non-clinical identifying information to be used solely for the purpose of determining whether the patient has been issued a firearms purchaser identification card, permit to purchase a handgun, or any other permit or license authorizing possession of a firearm. The bill stipulates that licensed practitioners who disclose a privileged communication in complying with the bill's provisions are immune from civil liability in regard to those disclosures.
If the patient has been issued a card or permit, the Attorney General would be required to arrange for any firearm possessed by the patient to be seized pending a hearing.
Both bills now await consideration by the Senate.
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