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College Park murder-suicide raises questions about gun background checks for mentally ill


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Published on: Wednesday, February 20, 2013

By Rashee Raj Kumar, Allen Etzler and Kelyn Soong , Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK — Under Maryland law, Dayvon M. Green, the mentally ill shooter in what police call a murder-suicide last Tuesday in College Park, had to undergo a state background check to purchase the 9mm handgun used to kill his roommate.

But Green, a University of Maryland graduate student who was schizophrenic, according to reports, did not have to undergo a state background check to purchase the semi-automatic Uzi .22 caliber rifle police found fully loaded next to his body.

The tragic events in College Park have raised questions about the effectiveness of state gun laws in preventing the sale of deadly firearms to someone suffering from a mental illness like Green.  

Before last week’s shooting, Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed changes to the state’s gun laws that could prevent more mentally ill people from obtaining firearms. But it’s not clear that those changes would have stopped Green from purchasing the 9mm handgun and Uzi rifle. 

Currently, state law treats the purchase of the two guns Green owned differently.  The Uzi rifle, an “unregulated firearm,” does not require a state background check. The 9mm handgun, a “regulated firearm,” requires a state background check that reviews limited mental health information. Police said he purchased both guns legally.  

Under state law, people with certain mental disorders that also have a history of violent behavior are prohibited from buying guns.

People who have been hospitalized for more than 30 consecutive days in a mental health facility — including public or private clinics, hospitals or institutions — are also prohibited from buying guns. But the state background check system run by the Maryland State Police only checks mental health records at public facilities, not private ones.   

The state background check begins when a customer buys a “regulated firearm” from a licensed gun dealer and fills out a Maryland State Police form that asks about criminal history, drug use and mental health problems.

The form asks, “Have you ever spent more than 30 consecutive days in any medical institution for treatment of a mental disorder or disorders?” 

If the customer answers yes, the sale is blocked, though the customer can still get the gun if they submit a note from a doctor saying they had been cleared within the last month to own a firearm.  

The customer’s word is not good enough for state police. As part of the background screening process, they run the customer’s name against 17 databases that check things such as criminal history. 

One court database provides information about people who were determined to be mentally unfit to stand trial in Maryland. They only non-judicial database they check that includes mental health information is maintained by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, according to Maryland State Police Sgt. Marc Black.

That database provides the state police information on people who were hospitalized for a mental health issue in a public state institution in Maryland for more than 30 days, according to Patrick Dooley, chief of staff for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. People who were treated at a private institution — or were treated in a public institution for less than 30 days — will not show up in the portion of the database the state police can see, he said.    

Black said that state police do not check any other state databases that provide mental health information.

“We check the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and anything in that database we utilize,” he said.

Details of Green’s mental health history and treatment are slowly coming to light.  The Prince George’s County Police Department said last week that Green had suffered from an unnamed mental illness for at least a year. 

Unnamed police sources told The Washington Post that Green had schizophrenia. The Gazette, citing unnamed police sources, reported that Green “self-admitted to a mental facility in 2009 and had a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” It’s unclear whether Green went to a public or private mental health facility and how long he stayed. A Prince George’s police spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigation Friday.  

The Maryland State Police also processes the federal background check, which is conducted by the FBI when a customer purchases a regulated firearm. The FBI background screening checks the customer’s name against three databases, two of which review criminal and court information.    

The third database is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Index. The database was created specifically for the NICS and maintains information supplied by local, state and federal agencies on people prohibited by law from possessing a firearm, said Stephen G. Fischer, Jr., of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Va. 

The database includes some mental health information provided by states, but the level of detail varies from state to state.  

Fischer said that if a prospective customer’s background check hits on one of three databases, they conduct a follow up investigation to determine whether to allow the sale to go through.

Under Maryland law, Green only needed to pass a federal background check to purchase the semi-automatic Uzi .22 caliber rifle. He did not need to pass a state background check.  

The weapon Green had was a variation of the original Uzi submachine gun, developed by Israeli Army Capt. Uziel Gal. Uzis earned an outsized reputation as a dangerous gun when they were featured in Hollywood blockbusters like “The Terminator,” “Robocop” and “Die Hard with a Vengeance.”

The Uzi .22 caliber rifle is designed to look like traditional Uzis, but it does not pack the same punch. It uses a .22 Long Rifle cartridge, a popular caliber of ammunition among small-game hunters.

“It’s the least powerful gun you can buy,” said Michael Faith, marketing director at Hendershot’s Sporting Goods in Hagerstown. “It’s suitable for hunting squirrel or groundhog.”

In response to a trend of gun manufacturers dressing up less powerful weapons to look like assault weapons, the Maryland State Police released a memo in November 2010 stating that guns like the semi-automatic Uzi .22 caliber rifle owned by Green did not require a state background check to purchase.

“A firearm that is cosmetically similar alone does not make it a ‘copy’ of an assault weapon,” the memo said. “Therefore, the Maryland State Police Firearms Registration Section will no longer require an individual to complete an Application to Purchase a Regulated Firearm ... for a semiautomatic .22 caliber rim fire rifle that is only cosmetically similar to an assault weapon.”

Under O’Malley’s proposed gun control legislation, the classification of the semi-automatic Uzi .22 caliber rifle as an unregulated firearm would not change. Mentally ill people would still be prohibited from owning the weapon if they had a history of violent behavior or had been confined to a public or private mental health facility for more than 30 consecutive days. They would still not be required to pass a state background check to obtain it.   

The governor has proposed several changes that could limit access to guns by the mentally ill, though it’s unclear if those changes would have prevented Green from purchasing the handgun or the Uzi rifle.

Under his proposal, both private and public mental health facilities in Maryland would have to report to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System patients who were voluntarily or involuntarily admitted — and stayed for more than 30 consecutive days. 

The facilities would also have to report if someone was involuntarily committed — for any length of time — if a court determined they could not safely possess a firearm. If that person already owned firearms, they would be forced to turn their weapons over to authorities.

Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who helped shape the mental health aspects of the legislation, said lawmakers were “seriously considering” amending the proposal to prevent people who were involuntarily committed to a mental health facility from owning a gun, regardless of whether a judge determined they could safely own a firearm.  

State lawmakers debating O’Malley’s gun control legislation said they were examining the 30-day threshold for mental health reporting.

“There’s certainly people who spend a lot more than 30 days in a mental hospital who pose no threat whatsoever, and then there are people who never set foot in a mental hospital and (have) no criminal record but are a great danger,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County, a co-sponsor of O’Malley’s gun control legislation. “So, really what I think the Judicial Proceedings Committee is focused on is figuring out methods of identifying people who do pose a threat to others regardless of whether they have spent time in a hospital or not.”

Delegate Sam Arora, D-Montgomery County, who co-sponsors the legislation, said that he was worried that people would avoid psychiatric treatment if the threshold were lowered. 

“If the law were to lower the threshold to five days would it be effective? Maybe you would capture people with short stays but the system would internalize itself for people to avoid treatment,” he said.

A spokeswoman for O’Malley did not respond to a request for comment Friday on whether the governor would suggest tweaks to his proposed gun control legislation in the aftermath of the College Park murder-suicide.

Capital News Service reporters Mary Tablante, Julia Maldonado and Lucas High contributed to this report.

 

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