Guns and mental health: How does involuntary commitment process work?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) - Pennsylvania has several laws on the books that deal with mental health including involuntary commitment, or Section 302.

"This is an area of law that many attorneys don't even understand," said Michael Giaramita, an attorney with Giaramita Law Offices, P.C.

If someone is involuntarily treated for mental health, it can affect the rest of their life in several areas, including gun ownership.

"That person can no longer possess or own firearms for life," Giaramita said. 

According to the law, for someone to be involuntarily treated under Section 302, the person must be considered a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness.  A pre-existing diagnosis of a mental illness is not required.  

Under the law, someone has to file an emergency petition. That can be a family member, friend or neighbor who has witnessed someone being a danger to themselves or others.

"For example, somebody has attempted suicide or they attempted or committed substantial bodily harm to another person within the last 30 days and there is a reasonable probability that will occur again," Giaramita said.

That person is then taken to a hospital where the law requires they are examined within two hours by a physician, who has to sign off on the 302 treatment.

"They have to make this call on the spot, and [the physician] understands there are consequences if they make the wrong call," said Giaramita.

The person can be held for up to five days. During an involuntary commitment, the person does not have legal representation.

"Unfortunately, many times people getting involved with the 302 process are drunk or they are under the influence of drugs and it's not a result of mental illness," said Giaramita. "Nobody is representing this patient or presenting evidence on their behalf. So it's a very quick process and the procedural safeguards are lacking."

Some states require a hearing before a judge before someone can be involuntarily committed. Some mental health professionals say involuntary commitments are emergency situations and time is of the essence.

If someone feels they were wrongly committed and they want their gun rights back, they can fight it in court. They have to prove the treatment was not valid and they can get it expunged. The process can take over a year.

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