SD panel votes to keep guns away from mentally ill

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota should take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people found to be mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others, a state Senate committee recommended Tuesday.

The Judiciary Committee voted 5-2 to endorse the measure after supporters said it would improve public safety while also giving people a chance to regain their right to possess firearms after their mental illnesses have been successfully treated.

The National Rifle Association, law enforcement organizations and an association representing gun dealers support the bill. Committee members said they were surprised no one testified against the measure Tuesday, because they have received dozens of messages prompted by another gun rights organization that opposes the bill.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said the measure would be a small step toward curbing gun violence by preventing those who are found to be dangerously mentally ill from buying or possessing guns.

“We don’t want them to have easy access to firearms, do we? It’s not in their best interests,” said Tieszen, a former Rapid City police chief and a sponsor of the bill.

Under the measure, people who are involuntarily committed to a mental health facility after a county board finds them to be a danger to themselves or others would be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Licensed firearms dealers conduct a check through NICS to determine whether a customer is eligible to buy a gun, and county sheriffs check it to determine if people should get permits to carry concealed handguns.

People acquitted of crimes by reason of insanity or deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial also would be added to the national list of those not allowed to have guns.

After treatment, those people could ask a state judge to restore their right to have guns, and that court order would reported to the NICS system. The bill’s supporters said that would be an easier way to restore federal gun rights than the current practice of petitioning the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, said federal law prohibits convicted felons, drug offenders and others from having guns. South Dakota already reports criminal convictions to the NICS system but should join other states in reporting those ineligible to have guns because of dangerous mental illness, he said.

South Dakota Gun Owners and its national affiliate have opposed the measure, arguing it takes away gun rights from people who have not committed any crimes.

Sen. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre, said he paid no attention to emails prompted by those groups. He said he had no problem with the bill’s intent, but voted against it because he believes too many people are being diagnosed with mental disorders and placed on prescription drugs.

Sen. Tim Begalka, R-Clear Lake, said he opposed the bill because it gives too much authority to the federal government and would discriminate against people with mental illnesses.

But Sen. Mike Vehle, R- Mitchell, said mass shootings around the nation frequently are committed by people with mental illnesses. He said a vote against the bill would be saying lawmakers think those with dangerous mental illnesses should be able to buy guns.

“I don’t want to have to explain that vote,” Vehle said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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