Psychologists say gun seizure law may have unintended consequences

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Mass shootings across the United States have sparked protests and demands for change.

In New Jersey, the Duty to Warn law was recently amended and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. Now — instead of weighing the best option to fulfill their duty to warn — health care professionals, social workers and family therapists will have to notify local police departments if they have a patient who wants to harm themselves or others. Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones sponsored the bill.

“So that if the individual who appeared to be a threat to themselves or others were going to secure a weapon and had applied for a license they wouldn’t allow them to have it. Or if they had access to weapons, that they could be removed if the threat was significant enough,” Jones said.

But forensic psychologist Gianni Pirelli says this new law has unintended consequences and may do more harm than good.

“You have to provide people with some sort of sense of security that you’re not just going to simply be calling the police on them,” Pirelli said. “It is difficult enough to get people to come in, and it’s difficult enough to establish a relationship with somebody. So again, this is not going to reduce mass shootings.”

Pirelli says only 11 percent of New Jersey residents are gun owners, so you’re exposing the privacy of many even though they don’t own guns.

“Remember, it’s not even to reduce suicides or homicides because if the person is not a gun owner, the residential police department is not even going to move any further with the situation because that’s not the law,” he said.

Amie Del Sordo runs the Crisis Intervention Team training in Bergen County. It’s a way for law enforcement and mental health professionals to learn from each other. She says she thinks this legislation is great because it puts a spotlight on mental health, but the way the law is written needs fine tuning.

“I think the way it might be written, it doesn’t necessarily say a danger to self, others or property due to a threat of a firearm, and so that may increase the volume of phone calls that law enforcement might get,” she said.

“So in other words, as a professional, if you believe that the person was that specific with a gun, then obviously that has more relevance with respect to pursuing a gun related inquiry,” Pirelli said.

Pirelli says it’s important people understand how gun statistics break down.

“The reality is two thirds of gun deaths are actually suicides. So a lot of times when you hear of gun violence, a picture of a mass shooter or a school shooter is put up, but that’s actually much less than one percent of gun deaths. So there’s 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States and over 20,000 of them are actually suicides,” he said.

And the solution for preventing mass shootings is very different from preventing suicides or other related gun deaths.

“I understand that we are kind of desperate for solutions and we feel really vulnerable as a society and we want to do something, but what I would say to everyone is just because we make a law and we’re ‘doing something’ doesn’t mean we’re being effective,” said Pirelli.

The New Jersey Psychological Association said in a statement they want to ensure “the motivation of the public to seek mental health care is not stifled or deterred in any way.”

Egan Jones says she is open to changes.

“We want to keep people safe,” she said.

Local law enforcement agencies do not report the number of guns seized under this law to the state police, leaving questions as to how all the data is going to be collected.