Sponsors water down mental-health gun bill

By Joe Hanel
Journal Denver Bureau

DENVER – Legislators at last began moving on the final piece of their gun violence agenda Tuesday with the first of two bills addressing people with dangerous mental problems.

Sponsors have scaled back their original plan to allow mental health professionals to flag possibly dangerous patients and keep them from buying guns, as well as make it easier to hold a person against their will for mental health treatment.

Both topics proved too controversial for mental health experts to find consensus before the end of the legislative session on May 8. Now, the bills call for a pair of task forces to start meeting this summer to recommend legislation for 2014.

The first of those bills, House Bill 1296, passed the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee on an 11-0 vote Tuesday. It creates a task force to update Colorado’s sometimes-confusing laws on when a person can be held for mental health treatment.

The task force will help sort out what’s best for patients in crisis, said one of the sponsors, Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D- Arvada.

“It’s a scary time, and you need to make sure the people around you are helping to keep you safe. That’s what this is intended to do,” Kraft-Tharp said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper first proposed an update to the mental health law in November as part of his response to the Aurora movie theater shooting.

His Department of Human Services director, Reggie Bicha, said the goal is to preserve patients’ rights by making it easier for doctors to decide when they need treatment. Currently, Colorado has three separate laws for mandatory treatment – one for drugs, one for alcohol and one for people with mental health problems.

“We believe that individuals who are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse-based disorder should receive services on a voluntary basis whenever possible,” Bicha said.

A second bill, HB 1306 will also create a task force on when – or whether – mental health experts could stop their patients from buying guns. It is scheduled for a hearing next Tuesday. HB 1296 now goes to the full House.


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