July 16, 2013

Editorial | Fix state law quickly to clarify firearms rules

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The(Hilton Head) Island Packet:

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The(Hilton Head) Island Packet:

State law must be changed quickly to benefit public safety, based on a Bluffton case involving firearms.

The case has resulted in the most peculiar result imaginable.

A man has been ruled in court to be mentally unfit to possess a handgun, but OK to possess an assault rifle.

It makes no sense, and it is the result of ambiguity in state law. That needs to be changed when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Meanwhile, the solicitor is appealing the judge's order in a separate effort to bring clarity to the law.

But despite the appeal, the gun owner is free to pick up from the Bluffton Police Department his Bushmaster .223-caliber assault-style rifle, Browning 12-gauge shotgun, Ruger .22-caliber rifle, an air rifle, knives and several boxes of ammunition. His designee can pick up his three handguns to hold until he is declared mentally fit to possess them.

The case stems from an incident last September, when police and members of a SWAT team swarmed a Bluffton home after Anthony Valentino made suicidal statements to neighbors and relatives and other comments that alarmed them.

He eventually left his home peacefully, and said he did not know a SWAT team was outside.

He never committed a crime and was not charged with a criminal offense.

But he was hospitalized involuntarily for five days, and doctors determined he posed a significant risk of physical harm to himself and others.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone felt obligated to bring the information to Circuit Court Judge Brooks Goldsmith for a ruling on whether Valentino was mentally fit to possess firearms.

Details emerging during this civil procedure showed that shortly before the incident Valentino had lost his job, his girlfriend had moved away with their 2-year-old daughter, and he had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder and another condition.

The judge ruled in June: “Based on a history of violence as related to the court through testimony and medical records, the court finds that the defendant is presently unfit.”

The judge said the court would look at it again in one year.

S.C. criminal law states that it is a felony for someone ruled mentally unfit to possess firearms. Or does it? The solicitor said the title of the law references firearms but the body of the law speaks only of handguns. The judge ruled that the law pertains only to handguns.

Clearly, the intent of the law is to protect the mentally ill and others. And someone mentally unfit to handle handguns is also unfit to handle shotguns and assault rifles. It is clear everywhere but in the written law, apparently.

Stone sees it as a mental health issue, not a gun issue. It is not related to a law the legislature passed this year intended to prevent mentally ill people from buying firearms.

Primarily, it is a public safety issue. And even though it is a rare occurrence, it is a problem that could easily endanger lives and must be resolved with a sense of urgency.

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