I came across a unicorn under the Gold Dome this week: A gun bill that has bipartisan support and strengthens both gun rights and public safety.
Senate Bill 99 is largely the same as a bill that passed last year, only to be tacked onto an omnibus gun bill that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed because of other parts of the bill (this was a separate bill from the campus-carry bill). The current version of the bill is a joint effort by Democrat Elena Parent of Atlanta and Republican Tyler Harper of Ocilla, and it addresses when a person who has been involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness or substance-abuse can have their right to purchase firearms restored. The Senate Public Safety Committee approved it unanimously Monday afternoon.
Federal law requires states to report such hospitalizations to the FBI for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, rendering the hospitalized persons ineligible to purchase firearms. Under current state law, that information is automatically expunged five years -- no more, but also no less -- after the hospitalization.
SB 99 would change that in two ways, and we need to get into the weeds a bit to understand how. First, it would afford the person in question an opportunity to petition the court that committed him to have the information about his hospitalization expunged from the background check system, as soon as when the hospitalization ends. If the court, having considered a variety of factors and testimony outlined in the bill, determines it is more likely than not that the person poses no danger to himself or others, the records will be expunged. If not, the person must wait at least 12 months before submitting a new petition.
At the end of five years, a person who hasn't had his information expunged will not have it removed automatically. Instead, 30 days before the five-year mark, the court will have to decide whether to let the information be expunged or to hold a hearing on the matter. If it holds a hearing, the court must find it is highly probable (a higher standard of proof known as "clear and convincing" evidence) that the person poses a threat to himself or others in order to keep the information about his hospitalization in the database. Otherwise, it's expunged.
Now let's take a step back. A history of mental illness is a factor common to many mass shootings in this country. If we're going to restrict gun rights to address that, we ought to focus on people who have such a history. This bill won't address all such people -- many people are treated for mental illnesses without being involuntarily hospitalized -- but it's a reasonable refinement of both ends of the process for those it does touch.
Those whose problems have been successfully addressed need not be penalized for longer than is necessary. But those whose problems remain shouldn't have their penalties ended sooner than is justifiable. A bill that improves matters on both counts is a good bill.
Sometimes, bipartisan bills make it through the legislative process because they represent the worst instincts of Republicans and Democrats. This is one of those occasions when it represents the best of both sides.