Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

Gov. Rick Scott signs bill to close loophole in firearm sales to mentally ill

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill to close a loophole in firearm sales to some mentally ill people, a controversial measure that has divided gun rights activists.

Scott assured conservative supporters in his signing letter that he is a "strong supporter of the Second Amendment" and has "signed legislation protecting the privacy of firearm owners and stopping local governments from overreaching in the regulation of firearms."

But Scott said "reasonable parameters on firearm purchases must be set forth in state law to ensure public safety."

"Mental health and second amendment advocates worked together to produce this bill that does not affect persons voluntarily seeking mental health exams or treatments but rather closes a loophole in current law that could potentially put firearms in the hands of dangerous, mentally ill individuals who are a threat to themselves or others as determined by a court," he wrote.

Florida law has allowed people who voluntarily commit themselves to a mental institution to buy a gun once they are released. The new law requires that before agreeing to voluntary treatment under the state's Baker Act, individuals receive written notice that if treated, they may be prohibited from buying a gun or "applying for or retaining a concealed weapons or firearms license" while they're deemed a danger to themselves or others. Their names are then added to a national database of people prohibited from buying a gun. People who are involuntarily committed are already added to that list.

Despite the legislation's support by longtime NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, Scott's email inbox was flooded with nearly 25,000 emails opposing the bill. The Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights launched an email battle against the bill and the NRA.

Hammer pushed back with her own email campaign to 200,000 gun owners last week to urge the governor to sign HB 1355.

"Gov. Scott obviously understands, and has read, the bill," Hammer said. "The bill will prevent dangerous people with mental illness from being able to buy guns. Everyone should support that, and thank the governor for caring."

Hammer said the bill's supporters "reached out to all of the stakeholders to be sure that we weren't going to have any unintended consequences."

Danielle Thompson, spokeswoman for the National Association for Gun Rights, said the group is "disappointed that Gov. Scott signed HB 1355, a bill that will allow state government to strip law-abiding gun owners of their rights for seeking voluntary mental health treatment. Gov. Scott has shown his disregard for law-abiding gun owners and their second amendment rights by signing this bill."

House sponsor Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, said the bill adds a "safety net" for the mentally ill, and also "provides a pathway to having their rights restored when they've been deemed successfully treated."

A judge and a physician have to concur that an individual is no longer a danger to themselves or others to have a name taken off the national database, Watson said.

Scott said that since 2002, "just under 100,000 individuals have been disqualified from purchasing a firearm based on court adjudications of mentally defective or mental commitments. These common-sense parameters balance the rights of individuals to purchase firearms with society's reasonable expectation of public safety."

Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, chairman of the Florida Supreme Court's Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health, which supports the bill, said that its biggest impact could be in preventing suicide.

Democrats sponsored more than a dozen gun-related bills this year, many in response to the mass shooting of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., but this was the only proposal to pass — largely because it had Hammer's backing. It passed with just one no vote (Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach).

Hammer said a survey found that 91 percent of NRA members said they support laws to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses.

"We worked hard to protect the rights of the mentally ill as well as the rights of those who might fall victim to dangerous people with mental illnesses," Hammer said.

Scott signed 45 other bills into law Friday, completing his action on all legislation approved by the 2013 Legislature.

The governor signed a charter school accountability bill (HB 7009) that bars employees of a charter school or management company and their spouses from serving on a charter school governing board.

Scott also signed an identity theft bill (HB 691), making it a first-degree misdemeanor to possess other people's Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers or other personal information. He signed a bill (SB 50) giving the general public more opportunities to speak at public meetings, and a bill (HB 1367) that removes a requirement that Tampa Port Authority members must approve expenditures over $15,000 by the port director.

Scott vetoed HB 1411, by Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, which would have increased from $2 to $3 the fee on Pinellas traffic tickets charged by the Pinellas Police Standards Council to do background checks on applicants for police officer positions in the county. In a veto message, Scott called the fee increase "an additional burden on those living in and traveling through Pinellas County."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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