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Texas is quietly implementing new regulations that give law enforcement clear authority to seize weapons from those in mental crisis and requires officers to check whether such persons are entitled to get them back.

The law, passed with little fanfare earlier this year and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, went into effect Sept. 1.
 
It requires county probate courts for the first time to inform police or sheriff’s deputies whether the person taken for evaluation was, in fact, ordered into a mental hospital. Under federal law, an individual “adjudicated as a mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility is disqualified from owning or purchasing a firearm.

Encounter uptick

Officers of the Houston Police Department, including Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr, had lobbied for the law because of an uptick in encounters with individuals in the midst of breakdowns who possessed firearms, said Charlah Woodard, a Houston police officer who is firearms investigator for the department’s mental health division.

Last year, the division handled 47 such cases. So far in 2013, they’ve handled 48 — with more than two months left in the year.

“People go through situations from time to time and we understand that,” Woodard said. “But we want to make sure we keep weapons away from those in crisis. It’s important to do the right thing for these people.”

The law, part of a series of recommendations from the advocacy organization Texas Appleseed for overhauling the Texas mental health code, has widespread support among Texas law enforcement officials.

It is “based on common sense,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said in a statement. “It gives police officers tools to prevent people from potentially harming themselves or others.”

Mental health advocates say that while the vast majority of those with mental illness are not violent, possession of a firearm by such a person can have tragic consequences.

“In these cases, efforts must be made to prevent suicides and protect public safety,” said Gregory Hansch, policy coordinator for the Texas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The law, SB 1189, “establishes sensible rules for the seizing of firearms by police officers from individuals in mental health crisis situations.”

Police in Texas have always been empowered to take weapons from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. The new law, sponsored by Sen. Joan Huffman and Rep. Allen Fletcher — both conservative Republicans from the Houston area — codifies that.

More importantly, it sets up a mechanism for authorities to check if the individual in question received court-ordered in-patient psychiatric treatment — which the law establishes as the test for whether police can give the seized weapon back. If the weapon is not returned, the law provides a way for a relative to take possession of the firearm as long as it is kept away from the mental patient.

Before the law, officers had little choice but to accept a person’s word that he or she had not been admitted.

Fletcher, a 23-year veteran of the Houston Police Department who describes himself as “a good Second Amendment guy,” said that as an HPD hostage negotiator he was “personally aware we’d taken weapons off individuals who were checked in to Ben Taub (hospital) for 72 hours, put on meds, and we were required to give the guns back.”

The law is one of many state efforts to avert shooting incidents by mental patients before they happen. Indiana permits officers to seize firearms without a warrant from anyone they deem to be a danger to themselves or others. Connecticut has a similar law, only it requires a warrant.

Legislators, mental health experts and law enforcement officials nationwide consider such laws key to breaking the cycle of mass-shooters who gain access to weapons despite histories of mental illness.

Aaron Alexis, the most recent such shooter who killed 12 at the Washington Navy Yard last month, had a long history of misuse of firearms and had been examined at a VA hospital after telling police he was hearing voices.

In some ways, the Texas law is a practical response to the state’s long, historic love affair with guns. Many other states are equally pro-gun but in the nation’s popular imagination, Texas is in the lead.

“We have a lot of guns in Texas,” said Guy Herman, judge of the Travis County probate court who testified in favor of the law last April. The law, he said, is “a Texas solution for a Texas problem that is not necessarily unique to Texas.”

No opposition

Although it involves government seizing weapons from individuals — an event that might be expected to evoke the ire of the gun-rights world — the law drew no opposition from pro-gun advocates.

“Lawmaking isn’t pretty and for a little while, we had concerns it was going to run amuck,” said Alice Tripp, lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association. But ultimately “it was written to help law enforcement, not confiscate firearms. It gives law enforcement emergency authority without overstepping rights to get guns back.”

Neither the NRA nor the Texas State Rifle Association took a position on the law, a fact that went a long way to guarantee controversy-free approval in the legislature.

The state’s gun lobby was “the big gorilla in the room” when the law was under consideration, Herman said. “It’s a victory when they stay neutral.”

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