ATLANTA — While some states push to tighten gun control laws after the Connecticut school massacre, lawmakers in gun-friendly Georgia want to ease rules preventing some mentally ill people from getting licenses to carry firearms.
Legislators in Georgia's House voted 117-56 on Thursday to allow people who have voluntarily sought inpatient treatment for mental illness or substance abuse to get licenses. The same bill would force officials to check on whether applicants have received involuntary treatment in the past five years before issuing licenses. Georgia also may change its laws to allow people to carry guns in churches, bars and on college campuses, contrary to what's happening elsewhere in the United States.
Judges in Georgia now have discretion over whether to grant a license to carry a weapon to anyone who has received inpatient treatment at a mental hospital or substance abuse treatment center in the last five years, whether it's voluntary or not.
"Simply being hospitalized doesn't make a person a criminal or a threat," said Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, the bill sponsor, in a statement. The legislation now heads to the state Senate.
That change is part of a larger package showcasing the local Republican philosophy on guns. The plan, backed by a gun owners group called GeorgiaCarry.Org, would allow people to carry weapons in churches, bars and college campuses — despite the objections of higher education officials.
Democrats resisted the proposal, although they conceded it would likely pass in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. They argued that allowing guns in more places will not make society safer and may lead to more deaths.
"I'm not, by nature, a worrier," said Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat. "But I worry that the mix of alcohol, drugs, sex and immaturity on college campuses could be fatal."
Law enforcement officials say they now screen people seeking to carry guns against a database with information on involuntary treatment orders, though officials acknowledge it is probably incomplete. Judges can require that people seeking a license authorize the release of treatment records and allow the judge to get a recommendation from treatment providers. Because there is no single clearinghouse for treatment information, judges would have to send waivers to multiple hospitals or treatment centers to get information.
Jasperse's bill would require that courts submit involuntary treatment orders to a database, and the legislation would force judges to run those checks before issuing a license to carry a weapon. It would also ban people whom law enforcement officials hear making threats against others in the last five years from carrying weapons. Those represented by guardians or conservators because of mental illness or drug abuse would also be disqualified.
One prosecutor said he was concerned about the provision because not everyone with serious mental illness is forced to receive treatment, meaning they would be eligible to carry weapons.
"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," Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said Wednesday.
Federal law prohibits giving or selling guns to anyone who judged to be "mentally defective" or those committed to a mental institution. States set their own standards on who can carry weapons. Some states use the same mental health threshold when deciding whether someone should be prohibited from carrying a gun.
Other states like Georgia have gone further. For example, Massachusetts allows authorities to deny people a license to carry if applicants have been confined for mental health treatment, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mississippi will deny licenses to people who have been committed, voluntary or otherwise, unless a psychiatrist testifies they have been free of mental illness for five years. Texas considers psychiatric hospitalization grounds for being refused to carry a concealed weapon.
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The legislation is backed by GeorgiaCarry.Org, a gun owners group that has been more aggressive about expanding rights to carry weapons in Georgia than the National Rifle Association, which supports a more limited slate of changes.
Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.Org, said the original law was too restrictive and could, for example, deny a license to military veterans voluntarily seeking help for stress-related disorders.
"If he seeks health treatment on his own it should not be held against him," Henry said.
Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: twitter.com/rhenryAP