Safety is goal of background checks under ‘Ashley Hall bill’
Thousands of Lowcountry residents who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions will be reported to gun-background-check registries, regardless of their diagnosis or why they were forced to receive treatment.
The so-called “Ashley Hall bill” signed by Gov. Nikki Haley on Friday bans people involuntarily committed or adjudicated mentally incapacitated from possessing guns. Their names will be reported to the National Instant Background Check System, which is used to see if someone is disqualified from buying a firearm.
Calls to keep guns from the mentally ill came after Alice Boland, 28, allegedly tried to fire a loaded handgun at Ashley Hall school officials on Feb. 4. She had been forcibly treated for schizophrenia in 2005 after Secret Service agents said she threatened to kill the president.
The goal of background checks is safety, for the general public and for the mentally ill, said Mark Binkley, deputy director of the state Department of Mental Health.
However, mental illnesses vary greatly, as do reasons for commitment, officials said.
Under the legislation, a person suffering major depression who attempted suicide a decade ago will be placed on the registry alongside someone with antisocial personality disorder, characterized by cruelty and deceit, who recently threatened violence.
“Everybody would like there to be a broad brush, and then we’re all safe. But it is complicated,” said Deborah Blalock, executive director of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center.
Probate judges can commit people who pose “substantial risk of physical harm to self and/or others to the extent that involuntarily emergency hospitalization is recommended.”
The vast majority who are committed pose imminent risks to themselves, typically suicide risks.
Others have become so delusional that they think they can fly or may unknowingly walk in front of a moving car.
A critical minority pose risks to other people.
Trouble is, it’s not always clear cut who will become a threat.
“We can’t give you a blood test to see if you’re going to be homicidal or suicidal,” Blalock said.
Seeking to commit a loved one is a decision wrought with fear and confusion already. Will landing on a government registry, even a confidential one, make that decision harder?
“If it gets into the public consciousness a lot, it might keep people from getting needed treatment,” Binkley said.
On the other hand, people who voluntarily seek commitment won’t be affected by the legislation. That could encourage people to seek treatment without a court ordering it, Binkley added.
People committed 10 years ago, or as far back as each county probate court has records, will be reported. A conservative estimate figures that will include more than 10,000 South Carolinians, Binkley said.
In Charleston County, probate judges heard nearly 1,400 commitment cases in 2012.
Federal law already bans people who have been involuntarily committed from gun possession. The legislation creates a process to report South Carolinians to the national background check registry.
It also includes a way for people to petition to get their gun-ownership rights restored.