HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania needs to improve access to mental health care in rural areas and do a better job of publicly detailing where guns used in crimes came from, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Tuesday.
DePasquale released the findings in a report he launched in the wake of a spate of mass shootings last fall, including the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and the church shooting in Sunderland Springs, Texas, a month later that claimed another 27 lives.
DePasquale said that the recent mass shooting that claimed 11 lives at a synagogue in Pittsburgh reinforced the need for action.
In addition to calling for greater focus on mental health access and gun-tracing, he also suggested that gun dealers watch for red flag behavior by would-be gun-buyers and called on county sheriffs to more carefully scrutinize applications for concealed-carry permits.
DePasquale said he’d spoken to Gov. Tom Wolf Monday about his findings. J.J. Abbott, a Wolf spokesman, said the governor agrees “with the direction of the report will work to implement recommendations from it.”
The need for improved mental health care is particularly acute in rural Pennsylvania because people are more likely to have guns and less likely to have easy access to psychological help, DePasquale said.
Almost two-thirds of 1,555 gun deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016 were from suicides, he said. The ten counties with the highest suicide rates in Pennsylvania are all rural – including: Wayne, Elk, Carbon, Clarion, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Clearfield, Somerset, Cambria and Jefferson, DePasquale said.
He also called for gun dealers to voluntarily monitor would-be gun-buyers for red flag signs of emotional distress. He modeled the idea on the Gun Shop Project in New Hampshire, which discourages gun dealers from selling firearms to people suicidal customers and encourages them to post signs with suicide prevention information.
The most controversial aspect of that concept is the suggestion that it’s necessary, said Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime.
Stolfer said he believe gun dealers already decline to sell guns to people who raise red flags.
“He’s intimating that they’re not screening customers. Gun dealers I talk to already are,” Stolfer said. “I think the auditor general is clueless.”
The auditor general said that in addition to working to make it easier for people to get access to mental health treatment, there should also be a campaign to eliminate the stigma of seeking help so that people take advantage of treatment when it’s available.
DePasquale said he focused on recommendations that wouldn’t require legislative action.
State lawmakers held multiple hearings on potential gun law changes inspired by the public outcry over mass shootings, however the only gun law change passed in Pennsylvania in 2018 focused on better protecting victims of domestic violence.
“The administration has been working with the State Police and Attorney General’s Office to explore various ways to improve the executive branch’s abilities to stop gun violence outside of legislative changes,” Abbott said. “The auditor general’s report will build on that effort.”
While the mass shootings grab the most attention, they represent only a fraction of the carnage linked to guns, DePasquale said.
As a result, most of his recommendations focused on things that could help improve gun safety in ways unrelated to mass shootings.