ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers will debate rules Thursday that could allow more mentally ill people to carry firearms, though hasty changes may blunt some of the impact.
The issue arose as House Republicans make a last-minute push on legislation permitting school districts to arm their employees and allowing those licensed to carry a gun to take their weapons into bars, churches and college campuses. That bill and a host of others must be approved by at least one chamber in the General Assembly by Thursday or risk failing for the year.
A lesser-noticed provision in the firearms bill would change rules on whether people who have recently suffered from mental illness or substance abuse can get a permit to carry a gun.
Probate court judges now have discretion over whether to give a license to a person who has been hospitalized as an inpatient at a mental hospital or an alcohol or drug treatment center within five years. Judges can require that applicants sign waivers allowing treatment facilities to disclose whether applicants have been hospitalized and allowing health care providers to give their recommendations to the judge.
The new bill would apply similar restrictions only to people who receive involuntary treatment, not those who voluntarily request help.
"... This bill strengthens and clarifies the mental health inquiry process for those seeking a Georgia Firearms License because it is targeted at the dangerous, not a person who recognizes they have an issue and voluntarily submits to treatment," said the bill sponsor, Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, in a statement. "Simply being hospitalized doesn't make a person a criminal or a threat."
Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said he had concerns about the proposed changes.
"My concern would be there's got to be people who voluntarily seek inpatient treatment who wouldn't be any less dangerous than if they're sent there involuntarily," said Reynolds, a former police officer.
Jasperse's plan would make it easier for judges to get information about involuntary treatment. Court officials would be required to report involuntary treatment orders to a state database that judges could consult before issuing a permit to carry a weapon. However, the latest legislation would not authorize judges to get information on voluntary inpatient treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems.
In a significant change, Jasperse's bill would require that judges check every applicant for involuntary hospitalizations. Right now, judges can make those inquiries, but they are not mandatory.
The bill is backed by GeorgiaCarry.org, which wants gun owners to have greater freedom to carry their weapons in public. John Monroe, an attorney for the group, said he did not believe the proposal would change how most judges operate. If judges check at all, they typically ask for information from a state-run network of hospitals.
Monroe said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for judges to send waivers to every possible private treatment provider before issuing a license.
"There's no way for a probate court judge to check these things," he said.
Changes to the bill Wednesday would specifically prohibit judges from giving licenses to sex offenders, those deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial and those found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. Another restriction would prevent judges from issuing a license to anyone whom a law enforcement officer heard make a threat against another person. Reports documenting those threats would be available to judges through the state-run database.