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No one is considering denying mental health data to sheriffs

From Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, in response to “Gun permits: Are mental records needed?” (April 7):

“North Carolina lawmakers are considering barring sheriffs from requesting the mental health records of applicants for concealed handgun permits,” warned a recent Observer article.

As author of House Bill 310, the “Concealed Handgun Modernization Act” being described, however, I assure you that statement is both selective and misleading. In 1995, I helped draft our concealed handgun law. Like other states, our “shall issue” system means applicants who meet statewide, uniform requirements – training, FBI background checks and no current mental instability or substance abuse – cannot be arbitrarily denied.

Imposing non-standard requirements, however, some sheriffs improperly deny permits. Extra requirements include character affidavits, additional background checks (and fees) from clerks of court, contacting employers, denying applicants for traffic infractions, even demanding “mug shots.”

Using forms not authorized by the Administrative Office of the Courts, one sheriff requires applicants’ personal physicians to certify they have “no concerns regarding issuing of concealed weapons permit [sic].” Beyond liability concerns for physicians issuing blanket releases, doctors with non-specific “concerns” about concealed handgun permits could presumably refuse to sign, rendering applicants ineligible.

Indeed, in The New England Journal of Medicine, UNC doctor Adam Goldstein notes: “There’s no evidence that physicians can accurately assess patients’ ability to use weapons competently and safely.”

Ironically, the Observer listed eight invalid denials reversed upon appeal to District Court Chief Judge Lisa Bell, including a woman who feared her ex-husband yet was denied over mental health treatment as a child.

Fortunately for Mecklenburg applicants, Judge Bell agrees to review permit denials since, despite a statutory avenue for one appeal, even the Observer admits “there was no system within District Court for reviewing appeals.”

Forcing applicants to pay lawyers $500 for appeals means untold numbers of invalid denials still stand for low-income applicants in crime-ridden neighborhoods, domestic violence victims, the physically disabled, and others.

HB 310 would bring our system, created before the computerized “National Instant Background Check System” (NICS), into the modern era by standardizing application requirements. Rather than sheriffs arbitrarily checking local facilities, mental health information would come from NICS.

Pursuant to the “NICS Improvement Act of 2007,” states report involuntary commitments and adjudications of incompetence to NICS. Thanks to conforming legislation passed in 2008, N.C. facilities report to clerks of superior court, who relay to NICS, meaning the same facilities to which sheriffs might make inquiries are already reporting. While some complain other states do a poor job of reporting to NICS, that’s irrelevant to this discussion: Information sheriffs receive from elsewhere won’t change.

Although we are willing to address stakeholders’ concerns, we remain adamant that sheriffs lack qualifications to decide whom should be denied self-protection over ancient, irrelevant and often transient mental health issues.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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