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Gov. Scott signs bill to ban gun sales to mentally ill

Gov. Rick Scott signed a  gun control bill Friday to close a loophole in firearm sales to some mentally ill people, a controversial measure that has divided gun rights activists.

In his bill signing statement, Scott assures conservative supporters he is a "strong supporter of the Second Amendment" and has "signed legislation protecting the privacy of firearm owners and stopping local governments from overreaching in the regulation of firearms."

As for his support of this bill, Scott states that "Reasonable parameters on firearm purchases must be set forth in state law to ensure public safety...

"Mental health and second amendment advocates worked together to produce this bill that does not affect persons voluntarily seeking mental  health exams or treatments but rather closes a loophole in current law that could potentially put firearms in the hands of dangerous, mentally ill individuals who are a threat to themselves or others as determined by a court."

Scott notes that "other states, such as Virginia and Mississippi, have passed similar laws to ensure the protections of their citizens and visitors."

The governor also commends "National Rifle Association Past President, Marion Hammer, and Representative (Barbara) Watson on their hard work to address a critical public safety issue following the all too frequent gun violence tragedies throughout our nation."

Despite the backing of Hammer, the NRA's powerful lobbyist, Scott's email inbox had been flooded with 24,631 emails opposing the bill and 4,414 in support as of Friday morning. It’s not clear how many were sent at the prompting of the Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights, which launched a vehement email battle against the bill and the NRA.

In response, Hammer, a powerful NRA lobbyist, pushed back with her own email campaign to 200,000 gun owners last week to urge the governor to sign HB 1355.

“Gov Scott obviously understands, and has read, the bill,” Hammer said. “The bill will prevent dangerous people with mental illness from being able to buy guns. Everyone should support that, and thank the governor for caring.”

Hammer said the bill’s supporters “reached out to all of the stakeholders to be sure that we weren’t going to have any unintended consequences.”

The bill addresses a gap in Florida law that has allowed people who voluntarily commit themselves to a mental institution to buy a gun once they are released. The new law requires that before agreeing to voluntary treatment under the state’s Baker Act, individuals receive written notice that if treated, they may be prohibited from buying a gun or “applying for or retaining a concealed weapons or firearms license” while they’re deemed a danger to themselves or others. Their names are then added to a national data base that informs retailers of people prohibited from buying a gun.

People who are involuntarily committed are already added to that list.

Danielle Thompson, a spokesman for the The National Association for Gun Rights, said the group is “disappointed that Governor Scott signed HB-1355, a bill that will allow state government to strip law-abiding gun owners of their rights for seeking voluntary mental health treatment.  Governor Scott has shown his disregard for law-abiding gun owners and their second amendment rights by signing this bill.”

But House sponsor Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, said the bill adds a “safety net” for the mentally ill, but also “provides a pathway to having their rights restored when they’ve been deemed successfully treated.”

A judge and a physician have to concur that an individual is no longer a danger to themselves or others to have their name taken off the national database, Watson said.

“The bill  helps our law enforcement agencies as well as our judicial system to uniformly apply the law across the state,” she said.

Scott said that since 2002, "just under 100,000 individuals have been disqualified from purchasing a firearm based on court adjudications of mentally defective or mental commitments. These common sense parameters balance the rights of individuals to purchase firearms with society's reasonable expectation of public safety."

Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, chairman of the Florida Supreme Court’s Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health, which supports the bill, said that the bill’s biggest impact could be in preventing suicide.

Democrats sponsored more than a dozen gun-related bills this year, many in response to the mass shooting of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., but this was the only proposal to pass -- largely because it had Hammer’s backing.

Watson said the bill’s backers also included the FBI and the FDLE.The bill passed the Legislature with just one no vote (from Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach).

Hammer said a survey found that  91 percent of NRA members said they support  laws to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses.

“We worked hard to protect the rights of the mentally ill as well as the rights of those who might fall victim to dangerous people with mental illnesses, “ Hammer said.