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News >  Idaho

Mentally ill may be getting gun permits

Associated Press

CALDWELL, Idaho – Although mentally ill people in Idaho are prohibited from getting concealed-weapons permits, several counties – including Ada, the state’s most populous – have yet to begin verifying mental health when processing the permit applications.

“Obviously, you don’t want to issue a concealed-weapons permit to someone suffering a mental illness,” said Chris Smith, sheriff of Canyon County, which began vetting applicants’ names with the state Division of Mental Health in April.

In the two months since, all of the 142 applicants for concealed-weapons permits in Canyon County have been cleared with no record of having been admitted to a mental health treatment center or having been determined in a court of law as mentally ill.

Canyon County copied the program from Twin Falls County, one of the few other counties in the state that is trying to check mental health before granting the permits.

“At this time we are not checking mental health backgrounds in Ada County beyond what is listed on the paperwork with law enforcement,” said Susan Romero, concealed weapons permit supervisor for the Ada County sheriff’s office. “I’m not sure how Canyon County is doing it, but it may be something we will look into and it’s a possibility we will start doing that in the future.”

A 1990 state law created a concealed-weapons licensing program to be administered by county sheriffs, who issue four-year permits that allow holders to carry concealed handguns on their person anywhere in Idaho.

Even before the law took effect, however, there were legal questions over the constitutionality and vagueness of several sections, including the provision that a person can be denied a license if he or she has “been adjudicated mentally defective or has been committed to a mental institution.”

Writing in a 1990 opinion, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Michael Kane noted that mentally defective is not the same as being mentally ill, “rather it is the state of being feebleminded or slow-witted.” Kane also questioned the vagueness of what constituted a mental institution and what is required to have been considered “committed.”

The Idaho Legislature subsequently amended the law to clarify several sections. It now allows a concealed-weapons permit to be denied to an applicant who is currently suffering mental illness or has been shown in an official proceeding to be mentally ill or lacking mental capacity.

The statute doesn’t specify how law enforcement should verify mental health. A spokesman for the Idaho attorney general’s office said that decision is up to individual sheriffs acting on the advice of county attorneys.

Under Canyon County’s new program, if an applicant’s name comes up in records maintained by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Mental Health Division as having been admitted to a mental institution, the sheriff’s office will require additional information before processing the application.

“We’ll have the person furnish us a letter from a mental health provider saying that he’s not a danger to himself or others,” said Debbie McRae, the sheriff’s records supervisor.

Besides complying with state law, Canyon County officials say the checks are important to protect the county from potential lawsuits over liability. McRae said that before the mental health checks were conducted, a man with a concealed-weapons permit attempted suicide with a weapon he was allowed to carry.

“If we can say we did everything we could to show only qualified applicants can get concealed weapons permits, then … we’re covered,” she said.

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