Politics & Government

Kentucky House panel approves bill on guns, mentally ill

FRANKFORT — A House committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would add some mentally ill Kentuckians to a national list of people who can't buy guns.

The House Judiciary Committee also approved bills to reduce incarceration for juvenile offenders and create a venue for citizens to allege fraud on behalf of the state. All the bills now go to the full House.

On the gun bill, the committee without debate approved House Bill 308, which would require Kentucky to notify the FBI when a court commits people to a mental institution or otherwise finds them mentally incompetent. The FBI would add the names of those people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, used by federally licensed gun dealers to screen their customers.

Federal law prohibits the sale of guns to anyone "adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution." However, Kentucky is one of many states that does not notify the FBI when its courts make such decisions, said Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, the bill's sponsor.

"The problem is that there's really not a good reporting process for actions taken by the courts," Damron told the committee.

The bill also includes an appeals process through the courts for people who later claim to have recovered their mental health so they can have their names removed from the national list. The bill does not cover people who voluntarily commit themselves to a mental institution or seek counseling, because their medical records usually are private.

The committee also approved House Bill 123, which would reduce the frequency and length of incarcerations of juvenile offenders charged with "status offenses," violations that would not be a crime if committed by adults. Examples include truancy, running away from home and using alcohol or cigarettes.

In 2009, 1,746 juveniles in Kentucky were locked up for status offenses, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all young people incarcerated, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates. The 2009 numbers were even higher in Fayette County, where 27.5 percent of juveniles jailed were status offenders, the advocacy group said.

"Kentucky is second in the nation for status offense lockups, even though Jefferson County, our largest urban area, engages in no lockups for its status offenders," said Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, sponsor of HB 123.

Finally, the committee approved House Bill 4, which would establish the Kentucky False Claims Act, mirroring a federal law that allows citizens to sue for fraud and recover damages on behalf of the government. Damages would be tripled and shared between the citizen and the state.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, the bill's sponsor, said he worked out a compromise with the Kentucky Hospital Association, which worried about fraud claims over Medicaid payments. A substitute version of the bill now exempts "innocent mistakes" that were not done with intent to defraud, Stumbo said.