In the wake of the Newtown massacre, New York State passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, requiring mental health professionals to report potentially dangerous patients for the purposes of creating a new database restricting their right to possess firearms.
According to new data obtained by the New York Times, reported October 19, this list now includes more than 34,500 names, raising concerns that it is unfairly stigmatizing people with mental illness who may not pose a threat to their communities.
“That seems extraordinarily high to me. Assumed dangerousness is a far cry from actual dangerousness,” said Sam Tsemberis, former director of New York City’s involuntary hospitalization program for homeless and dangerous people and chief executive of Pathways to Housing, told the New York Times.
Under the law, which is more well known for its expansion of the state’s assault weapon ban, mental health professionals must report all individuals “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.”
The reports are first sent to county officials, who are supposed to provide an additional level of oversight before forwarding the names to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The names are kept confidential.
From March 16, 2013, when the law went into effect, to October 3, 2014, mental health professionals filed 41,427 reports to county officials. Of those reports, county officials forwarded almost all of them – 40,678 – to state officials to be placed on the state’s no-gun registry. In total, the list now contains the names of 34,500 unique individuals, since many of them were reported multiple times, who are no longer able to possess guns in New York State due to their mental illness.
Later on October 19, after the New York Times report was published, Governor Andrew Cuomo defended the SAFE Act at a rally in the Bronx. Cuomo, who is running for reelection, called it “sensible gun control” and argued that the number of people on the list must be evaluated in the context of the fact that 140,000 people are hospitalized in the state for mental illness each year.
“I’ve heard concerns that the number is too low, because obviously there are about 110,000 people who are institutionalized, but yet could still get a gun,” Mr. Cuomo said at the rally, according to the New York Times.
When the SAFE Act passed, many mental health advocates raised concerns that the law could deter people from seeking mental heath treatment and threaten the doctor-patient relationship.
Nationwide, just four percent of all violent crimes can be attributed to people with mental illness, who are far more likely to be the victim, rather than the perpetrator, of such crimes.