Mental health commitments on state agenda


Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series about bills that could be introduced during the 2013 Colorado legislative session.

Gun-control measures won’t be the only response to the recent deadly shootings in Colorado and elsewhere in the nation, state lawmakers promise.

But exactly what the 69th Colorado General Assembly does after it convenes on Jan. 9 when it comes to limiting what firearms people can purchase is unknown, legislative leaders working on those measures say.

Some of that could depend on what gun-control bills are introduced into the next session of Congress, which will convene nearly a week earlier than the state.

Lawmakers there, including Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, are considering introducing measures outlawing assault weapons and high-volume magazines.

As a result, Democrats who control the Colorado House and Senate aren’t quite sure yet what actual gun-control bills they will introduce into the Legislature, though some lawmakers are considering sponsoring such measures regardless of what Congress does.

Party leaders are certain, however, that not all of the bills introduced into the Legislature will focus strictly on gun control, said state Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver.

As the incoming chairwoman of the newly named House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee, McCann said she plans to introduce a bill centering on keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have access to them, specifically those with mental health issues.

“We haven’t really decided on specifics because we’re looking at a broad range of options, but I’m focused on trying to figure out how keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” McCann said. “My particular bill doesn’t address gun ownership. It addresses involuntary (mental health) commitments.”

Her bill would align three statutes into a single civil commitment law, one designed to protect the civil liberties of people experiencing mental crises or substance abuse emergencies, but clarifying the process and options available to mental health and substance abuse service providers.

It’s one of the ideas proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last week, when he presented a plan to increase funding to mental health programs by $18.5 million.

“We’re looking at all kinds of things, including whether there should be limitations on access to guns, types of guns, magazine sizes,” McCann said. “But we’re also trying to look at everything at this point and trying to determine what’s really the most effective way to protect public safety. Colorado’s been at the forefront of this issue because we’ve had more than our share of these shootings, so we have an opportunity to be a leader in the nation in this area.”

Right now, Colorado is the only state in the nation with three separate involuntary commitment statutes, which have created confusion among law enforcement, psychiatrists and medical doctors on which one should be used.

The measure is to provide clarity to that process while preserving a patient’s individual rights.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is to carry a bill that would require real-time updates to criminal history background checks of people deemed by the courts to be mentally incompetent to stand trial, or are found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. Either would bar them from qualifying for a license to own a firearm.

Currently, the Colorado Justice Branch sends that information to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation via CD-Rom, and then only twice a year, said Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Democrats aren’t the only legislators considering introducing related bills.

Sen. Steve King plans to introduce a bill that would allow any school that wants one, and can pay for it, to have at least one armed school resource officer roaming the hallways when school is in session.

The Grand Junction Republican said he’s still working out the details, but the measure would have the state pay one-third the cost of any one resource officer, but only if the local community and school district come up with the rest.

For the past several years, King has worked to beef up security in the state’s schools, including getting a new law on the books last year requiring schools to have more direct contact with local law enforcement to be better prepared during responses to emergencies.

“The reason (we’re) talking now is because of the fact that we’ve entered a time in society where we pretty consistently have these type of tragedies,” King said.

“Until we find the solution that nine times out of 10 will render the problem solved, we’re going to continue to deal with this.”


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