TN bill seeks early alert to possible shootings

7:24 AM, Mar 22, 2013   |    comments
Ron Ramsey
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Thursday that would require mental health professionals to report potential threats to law enforcement, a move supporters say could head off mass shootings.

Senate Bill 789 passed unanimously as lawmakers found little reason to debate a measure that tightens reporting requirements for mental health workers and the courts. The bill is part of a push - backed by gun-rights proponents and gun-control advocates alike - to change mental health laws in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.

"Mass violence of any sort is a tragic occurrence. But the worst tragedy results when the state overreacts to a mass shooting by restricting the Second Amendment rights of the law-abiding," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a prepared statement praising the measure. "This bill focuses not on inanimate objects but on the very real issue of mental health. ...

"By focusing on the mentally ill, we will focus on those who should not have weapons while leaving the law-abiding gun owner free to exercise his God-given constitutional right."

The Tennessee Psychological Association supports the bill. Mark Greene, a lobbyist for the group, said it clarifies that when clients make threats to harm or kill, the police must be told, in addition to potential victims.

"We understand that there's a push to deal with the mental health side of gun ownership," he said. "The psychologist or the physician or whoever was treating the patient, when they do the alerting, they have to call the police."

The bill also requires police to pass information they receive about potential threats to the FBI and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Doing so could prevent a patient from purchasing a firearm.

"Physicians and health care professionals have a responsibility of confidentiality," said state Sen. Ferrell Haile, the measure's sponsor. "What we're trying to do with this bill is equalize the responsibility that they have to warn the public."

A lobbyist for the Tennessee Medical Association says his group also accepts the measure.

What discussion there has been about the bill has centered on mental health professionals. But the measure also requires that the names of people who have been committed involuntarily to a mental health facility be sent to the FBI more frequently.

Under current Tennessee law, courts send this information to the FBI once every three months. The bill would give court officers no more than three days to report.

The House version of the bill is set to come up for a hearing Wednesday in the Civil Justice Committee.

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