PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island should provide some mental health records to the national firearm background check system to prevent violent, severely mentally ill people from purchasing firearms, a state task force recommended Tuesday.
The proposal, which now goes to lawmakers, would allow courts to submit information to the background check system only when a person is involuntarily committed and determined to pose a danger.
The task force was created following the deadly Newtown, Conn., school shooting to examine whether Rhode Island should join most other states in submitting mental health records to the system used when an individual attempts to purchase a gun.
While Rhode Island already submits criminal histories, state medical privacy laws prohibit the reporting of mental health records.
The task force's recommendation seeks to balance public safety with medical privacy and 2nd Amendment rights, according to Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey, D-Exeter, who co-chaired the task force.
"A one-size-fits-all approach cannot be applied," she said. "We've found a way to make progress toward preventing tragedies, but with respect to the fact that we are also responsible for protecting individuals' rights."
Mental health advocates had urged officials not to go too far by submitting records of people who voluntarily seek in-patient treatment, or those facing more common illnesses such as addiction, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder who pose no threat.
The details of a person's mental illness would not be reported to the background check system. The task force report also recommends that anyone prohibited from having a gun because of mental illness be given an opportunity to appeal.
Craig Stenning, director of the state's Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, said he was concerned the state could discourage people from getting help for a mental illness if they believed they would lose their right to buy a firearm. Stenning, who sat on the task force, said the recommendation would only apply to a small number of people.
"My responsibility is to protect the dignity of individuals with mental illness," he said. "We've spent years trying to encourage people to get treatment. I didn't want to see us take a step back."
The proposal is now being drafted as legislation for consideration by the General Assembly.