The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

August 25, 2013

Ohio AG: Mental illness gun law data don't add up

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Figures collected under a state gun law requiring Ohio's probate courts to report information about people subject to court-ordered hospitalization for mental illnesses don't add up, and the state's top law enforcement official wants to know why.

Attorney General Mike DeWine has ordered his regional field representatives to contact all 88 probate courts to determine why the numbers — required under Ohio's 2004 concealed weapons law — vary so widely.

The goal of the reporting requirement is to keep people with serious mental illnesses from obtaining a conceal-carry permit.

Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati and the state's third most populous county, reported 10,000 cases of mental illness-related court orders over a nine-year period since the law passed, according to attorney general data obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.

Yet Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland and Ohio's most populous county, reported 3,200 cases during the same time period. That's fewer than Montgomery County, home to Dayton and the fifth most populous county, which reported 5,600.

Some big counties reported few or none — such as Lake County in northeast Ohio, which reported just two cases over nine years.

"The numbers per county leave a lot to be desired whether or not we're getting comprehensive and complete data," Steve Raubenolt, deputy superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, told the AP.

There's no evidence that someone who shouldn't have obtained a concealed weapons permit did so because of the data issues, Raubenolt said.

But the state still doesn't know if people who should be on a list preventing them from applying for the permits aren't in there, he said.

Concern over the figures dates back at least to the administration of Attorney General Richard Cordray. He asked probate courts in 2009 to check their figures, an effort DeWine renewed earlier this year.

In many cases, judges in counties without mental health treatment centers refer defendants to other counties. As a result, those cases are reported by another probate court.

That's the case in Ashtabula County in northeast Ohio, which reported just three cases over nine years.

Ashtabula County Probate Judge Charles Hague thinks the problem runs deeper. He says the state's mental health system is broken and needs to be overhauled.

Hague also points out that individuals who go through a separate commitment system, known in the mental health field as "pink slipping," aren't reflected in the probate court numbers at all.

In cases where a commitment occurs without the court's knowledge, "Then, bingo, they're outside the statute forever," Hague said.

Including all people in the mental illness commitment process, some of whom ultimately sign themselves in voluntarily, would cast too wide a net, said Marc Baumgarten, chief of legal services for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

"You want to encourage people to get help," he said. "You don't want a stigma associated with people going into the hospital to get help."

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus