Nearly 35,000 New York State residents have been stripped of their Second Amendment rights because they have been labeled “mentally unstable” – and several experts say the pool no doubt includes many people who are perfectly sane.
There are now around 34,500 names in the Empire State’s database of people considered too mentally ill to own weapons, The New York Times reported.
“That seems extraordinarily high to me,” mental health expert Sam Tsemberis told The Times. “Assumed dangerousness is a far cry from actual dangerousness.”
Tsemberis is a formerly director of New York City’s program for involuntary hospitalization of seriously mentally ill people, and now works with NYC’s mentally ill homeless population.
The database was created as part of New York State’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act or SAFE Act of 2013, one of the nation’s most restrictive gun control laws. A person in the database can be stripped of their permit to own a gun or denied such a permit.
The database is maintained by New York State’s Division of Mental Illness. The Times was able to obtain figures about the database through a Freedom of Information request.
Information about individuals in the database is kept secret, which makes it impossible to verify whether people are truly mentally ill.
How Non-Dangerous People Could End Up in Database
Many mental health experts oppose the database because they fear it will keep people from seeking psychological or psychiatric treatment. Others like Tsemberis believe that the number of names in the database is too high because most mentally ill people are not violent.
“The threshold for reporting [a person] is so low that it essentially advertises that psychiatrists are mandatory reporters for anybody who expresses any kind of dangerousness,” Dr. Mark J. Russ, the director of acute care psychologically at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens, said of the SAFE Act. Russ is concerned that people who are not dangerous will end up in the database.
Around 500 people a week are being added to the database, according to The Times.
How the Database Works
One big problem with the database: Any doctor, nurse, psychologist or social worker (who does not have to be a trained mental health professional) can nominate someone for inclusion. Names are forwarded to county officials, and if they agree with the nomination, they put the name into the database. County officials, though, are overwhelmed.
“So many names are funneled to county health authorities through the system — about 500 per week statewide — that they have become, in effect, clerical workers, rubber-stamping the decisions,” The Times reported.
Psychologist Dr. Kenneth M. Glatt, who also works as commissioner of mental hygiene for Duchess County, New York, acknowledged he places people in the database without even seeing them or evaluating their condition. He tried to justify his actions by saying he occasionally reads the paperwork about the person.
“I am not going to second guess,” Glatt said. “I don’t see the patient. I don’t know the patient.”
Nor does the database actually keep mentally ill people from getting guns. It simply stops them from getting a permit to own a handgun. In most of New York State, no permit is needed to buy a rifle or shotgun.
Like California’s new law, the New York law allows authorities to confiscate guns from those declared mentally ill. California Governor Jerry Brown signed his state’s bill, AB 1014, into law in September.
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