Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt

By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Facing a challenge in balancing mental health privacy and public safety considerations, the gun violence task force appointed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo will hold its final hearing on Dec. 13 with a report issued in the following weeks, according to its chairman.

A member of the committee said she heard gun legislation would be taken up early next year.

"I think there's some thoughtful provisions in the various legislation," said Chairman Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminal justice researcher, who declined to preview the contents of the report or the various sections that will be included.

Broadly speaking, the report will cover school safety, mental health, and gun licensure where the task force will aim to "streamline our process and strengthen it," McDevitt told the News Service.

The group, which McDevitt said includes a diversity of opinions, has met in private with advocates on both sides of the gun access debate, mental health practitioners and researchers, school officials and police chiefs from rural, suburban and urban areas.

"They have sort of different concerns and challenges with the law," McDevitt said.

Asked about privacy concerns that have been raised by Rep. Linda Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, around how information about an individual's mental health history could be used, McDevitt said those issues are a "focus" of the task force.

"You've put your finger on one of the most difficult challenges," McDevitt said.

He said a bill filed by Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat whose efforts are backed by gun control advocates, includes a provision that would require gun license applicants to provide mental health history, which is similar to legislation in Hawaii and makes people in the mental health community "fearful."

Campbell told the News Service she was cautious to provide privacy protections in her bill, which would enable doctors to temporarily exclude someone from possessing a firearm license if the doctor deemed him or her mentally unfit at the time. The exclusion would last a year, there would be an appeals process, and the list of excluded individuals would not be sent to the national database of people who have been involuntarily committed, Campbell said.

"My concern as a private citizen is that someone who suffers from mental illness would be put on a national database," said Campbell, who said her bill is "unique" and would only send the information to police chiefs who determine whether someone can be licensed.

A former captain in the U.S. Army who is married to a retired lieutenant colonel, Campbell said the temporary nature of the designation would enable a doctor to list a soldier newly returned from combat and suffering from "pronounced" symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder without the designation permanently excluding the soldier from firearm ownership.

Rep. Hank Naughton, a Clinton Democrat running for attorney general, has been waiting for the task force report before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee finishes a bill to change the state's gun laws.

Naughton is co-chairman of the committee with Sen. James Timilty, a Walpole Democrat, and both have A+ ratings from the Gun Owner's Action League, the state's most prominent gun rights advocacy group.

A member of the committee, Campbell said she has been told the bill will be taken up fairly early in 2014, and said she has not been interviewed by the task force about her bill.

McDevitt said various members of the task force are working on different sections, and once a draft is assembled it would likely be shared with DeLeo's office. He said the task force would "funnel everything" through the speaker's office.

DeLeo appointed the task force in March, a few months after the massacre of Sandy Hook Elementary School children by a lone gunman in Newtown, Conn. Saturday, the day after the task force's final meeting with selected members of the public, will mark the one-year anniversary of the mass murder.

Dec. 14, 2012 also marked the beginning of a sometimes acrimonious debate about the various state and federal gun laws throughout the country, with some parents of the murdered children devoting their lives toward seeking stricter gun laws through the organization Newtown Promise.

On Friday, the task force will meet with "a couple of gun dealers and parents of children with mental health issues."

McDevitt said the task force will review legislation filed by Linsky, Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican, and Gov. Deval Patrick, as well as Naughton's impending bill.

"I can't tell you which ones are going to come out in the report," said McDevitt, who said the aim was "not to take one side of this issue."

The eight-person task force also includes former Massachusetts and Louisiana Inspector General Robert Cerasoli; Revere School Superintendent Paul Dakin; Harvard Professor of Health Policy David Hemenway; John Herman, associate chief of the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital; Natick Police Chief James Hicks, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association; Boston College associate professor Marylou Sudders, a mental health expert for the US Department of Justice and a member of the Health Policy Commission; and Raffi Yessayan, a New Bedford attorney, former gang unit prosecutor and crime novelist.