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Hawaii lawmakers announce plans to expand mental health treatment, tighten gun laws

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard speaks at the joint press conference with legislative leaders and law enforcement announcing gun violence prevention and mental health bills today. Legislators included Representatives Della Au Belatti, Chris Lee, Joy San Buenaventura, Gregg Takayama and Senators Rosalyn Baker, Clarence Nishihara, Karl Rhoads, appeared with Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors and Edward Mersereau, Deputy Director of Behavioral Health Services.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard speaks at the joint press conference with legislative leaders and law enforcement announcing gun violence prevention and mental health bills today. Legislators included Representatives Della Au Belatti, Chris Lee, Joy San Buenaventura, Gregg Takayama and Senators Rosalyn Baker, Clarence Nishihara, Karl Rhoads, appeared with Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors and Edward Mersereau, Deputy Director of Behavioral Health Services.

State lawmakers announced a package of proposals this afternoon that attempt to do a better job of coping with mental illness and to close loopholes in Hawaii’s firearms laws in the wake of the shooting deaths of two Honolulu police officers on Jan. 19.

Officers Tiffany-Victoria B. Enriquez and Kaulike Kalama were fatally shot at a Diamond Head home, allegedly by a handyman who is also believed to have killed his elderly landlady Lois Cain and himself. Handyman Jerry “Jarda” Hanel, 69, is also believed to have set a fire that destroyed five Diamond Head area homes and damaged two others..

Hanel was known to have mental health issues and was involved in conflicts with his neighbors, and the centerpiece of lawmakers’ initiative is an effort to open up additional beds where patients can be placed under a civil commitment process to allow them to stabilize.

State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura said lawmakers have been working on plans to provide better mental health care to people who have not committed a serious crime but are showing obvious signs of mental illness. “It’s a shame that it (took) this tragedy to actually bring it to the forefront,” said San Buenaventura, (D, Pahoa-Kalapana).

The bills would expedite mental evaluations of people who have committed misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offenses, and make bed space available for civil commitments to allow patients time to stabilize.

Eddie Mersereau, the state Department of Health’s deputy director for behavioral health, said bedspace can be made available at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe when a new facility opens at the hospital, and frees up 90 beds that could then be used for civil commitments.

“These are not new issues, and we’ve been working on them for a couple a years now,” Mersereau said. “We’re at the jumping off point.”

Another 34 beds might be used for mental health treatment at Leahi Hospital at 3675 Kilauea Ave., and more space may be available at the old state judiciary complex in Kona, and at the old or new hospitals in Hilo, he said.

Start-up funding for those operations could be funded with $15 million to $30 million from a fund that holds Medicaid reimbursements the state receives from the federal government for providing mental health and substance abuse treatment services, he said.

Lawmakers are also considering an array of firearms-related bills, but Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said she is most interested in legislation to crack down on mail-order firearms that are shipped to Hawaii in pieces, and then assembled here.

That practice avoids the state permitting process and background check that each firearm owner is supposed to undergo, and the weapons that are mailed into the state might never be registered as required by law. Ballard said 60 of those mail-order firearms were registered in one month, which makes police wonder how many more are out there.

Ballard said she is also interested in proposed legislation that would require gun owners to prove they were issued a permit to acquire a firearm before they are allowed to buy ammunition for the weapon.

Another issue Ballard hopes to address arises when a gun owner dies, and his or her survivors do not know what do do with the late owner’s firearms. That may have been a factor in the Jan. 19 murders of the two police officers.

Lawmakers are considering a bill to have a personal representative of the late gun owners appointed to notify police of any firearms in the estate.

Lawmakers also said they are also interested in advancing legislation prohibiting anyone from possessing a loaded firearm while intoxicated unless they are in their own homes. Possession of a firearm while drunk in public would be a petty misdemeanor under the proposed law.

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