Central Delaware
Senate rejects mental health legislation
The Senate chamber in session Thursday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — Mental health legislation that sought to expand the reporting requirements for medical professionals in order to keep guns out of the hands of those found to be “dangerous” individuals failed to pass the state Senate Thursday.

House Bill 88, a bipartisan piece of legislation, backed by the state attorney general, had previously passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 40-1 in March.

In the Senate, the story was quite different.

HB 88 failed by a vote of 13-6, with both Republicans and Democrats voting against the measure and rookie lawmakers Sens. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle and Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, refraining from voting.

“I cannot explain what happened today in the state Senate,” said Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III. “I am very disappointed [the bill] failed to get 11 votes.”

The legislation would have required medical health professionals to report, to police, when a mentally ill person, whether involuntarily or voluntarily committed for treatment, communicated a threat of violence against themselves or another identified person and has the capacity to carry it out.

“This is the Aurora bill,” A.G. Biden said, referencing the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora Colo., where James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Holmes had met with mental health professionals prior to the mass shooting and had made homicidal statements, but action had not been taken.

“This is to fill that gap,” A.G. Biden said of individuals who have been voluntarily committed for treatment, but could still potentially purchase a firearm.

Under the bill, once law enforcement finds evidence to substantiate the threat, the attorney general’s office will file a petition with the state’s Superior Court, but police cannot search a house or seize firearms without a judge’s order.

Some Senate lawmakers were not so convinced.

Senate Minority Whip Sen. Gregory Lavelle, R-Sharpley, issued an amendment during the bill’s hearing on the floor that would attach a two-year sunset to the legislation, to allow for review of its implementation. However, that measure failed by a vote of 12-9.

Even senators who voted against the amendment, like Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, still had questions on the practicality of the bill. Sen. Peterson wondered how the bill would work to not discourage people from seeking mental health treatment.

“We believe the incentive for people to seek help is the same under current system,” said Meredith Stewart Tweedie, deputy attorney general. “This just allows us a way to separate a person in crisis from their weapons.”

The National Rifle Association had worked with representatives to pass two amendments to clarify the bill’s language in March, and remain neutral, said Shannon Alford, NRA state liaison.

Sen. Colin R.J. Bonini, R-Dover, point-blank asked her if the NRA endorsed the legislation.

“No, we do not,” Ms. Alford stated matter-of-factly, before the roll call.

The attorney general wondered to what degree of pressure the NRA could have put on legislators in the past 24 hours. But he said he did not blame the organization for their lobbying efforts — if any at all.

He was adamant that the bill did not need amending.

“It’s a measure that’s going to save lives,” A.G. Biden said.

After the vote was taken, Senate Minority Leader Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said there was a pretty solid consensus among the Senate Republican caucus to vote against the bill. He was unaware of any emails circulating to legislators in the past 24 hours that would have changed vote choices.

However, he did say testimony in support of the legislation on the Senate floor could have potentially influenced votes on the fly.

For instance, Hockessin psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Kaye, said individuals would have only had to be involuntarily committed in order for the legislation to take effect.

“It was unfortunate he was a bit confused in his testimony,” the attorney general said, citing that nerves could have gotten the best of the psychiatrist.

But the battle is far from over.

“I always anticipated a fight on this,” he said.

Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow DSNJen Rini on Twitter.