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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Brees

Bill to create Louisiana’s ‘do-not-sell’ gun self-registry deferred until 2020

A proposed bill to create a voluntary “do-not-sell” gun list in Louisiana for people who fear they are a danger to themselves or others is being deferred until next year.

Concerns over funding, in addition to potential opposition from the NRA, derailed momentum for the so-called “Donna’s Law,” making approval unlikely, said Rep. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the bill. Instead, Harris plans to push for a resolution this legislative session to further study the issue with the intention of reviving it in 2020.

Harris’ proposed bill was named after a New Orleans woman, Donna Nathan, who killed herself with a gun last year. Her daughter, Katrina Brees, has led the movement to create the “do-not-sell” list, determined to turn her family’s tragedy into something positive.

Brees, whose story was first reported as part of | The Times-Picayune’s “A Fragile State” series, believes her mother, if given a second chance, would have gladly chosen a different path and put her name on the list. But suicide is often a rash decision made in moments of intense hopelessness and despair.

Louisiana would have become the second state to approve a “do-not-sell” self-registry, following Washington, which passed its own version in 2018. The Washington law, and the Louisiana proposal, however, differed in one important way, which proved politically fatal in this session.

In Washington, people who want to add their names to the “do-not-sell” list are required to do so in-person with a clerk of court. Harris’ proposal would have allowed people to register online. This created problems on two fronts, the first being financial.

Allowing people to register electronically would have required the development of a “secure registration system that includes real-time status updates, changes, notifications and integration with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” according to the bill’s fiscal note – an estimate of its cost prepared by legislative staff.

Such a system would call for a one-time expenditure of more than $357,000 and a recurring expenditure of nearly $200,000, all of which would come from the budget of the Department of Public Safety. It was estimated that additional money would be needed from state general funds to purchase software, equipment and hire additional staff.

Harris said it became clear, as the bill’s scheduled date before the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice grew closer, that the associated cost would make it difficult to muster the support needed for approval. To further complicate the issue, the NRA also expressed concerns with an electronic registry, and pressed for in-person registration through a law enforcement office, Harris said.

The NRA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Victoria Coy, director emeritus of the Louisiana Violence Reduction Coalition, and one of the leaders of the efforts to pass Donna’s Law, said that “with so many of Louisiana’s suicide victims having military or law enforcement experience, we are disgusted that the state’s budget crisis has prevented the State Police from being able to protect their own by funding a basic database that would enable Donna’s Law to function properly.”

Despite the setback, Coy said they will continue to “work fervently with all interested parties over the next year” to pass the legislation in 2020.

Harris said he began to explore the idea of changing the language of his bill, but it would have required talking to every clerk of court, sheriff’s office and police department across the state to get their buy-in. And there simply wasn’t enough time.

Harris’ proposal was based on a model bill by University of Alabama law professor Fredrick Vars, who first created the idea of a voluntary “do-not-sell” gun list. Vars said he understands that in order to pass such a measure states might have to require in-person registration, as Washington did, but he believes allowing people to do so electronically provides the privacy and confidentiality needed by people in crisis.

“We’d get a lot more people signing up if we made it easy and something they could do at home,” Vars said. “I know it seems like a big-ticket item and seems too much for political will, but when you save a few lives it’s certainly worth the investment.”

A single suicide is estimated to cost $1.3 million in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

This is how the proposed law would have worked: people could request that their names be added to a “do-not-sell” list. The state police would then ensure those names are reflected in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to identify people prohibited from buying guns from licensed dealers.

Individuals on the list could have their names removed and their ability to purchase a gun restored 21 days after filing such a request.

Advocates for the law argue that in Louisiana, a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, moments of personal crisis are often armed. Louisiana had 677 suicides in 2016. Of those, 440, or 65 percent, were by firearms.

The deferment of the bill is disappointing, Brees said, but it will not discourage her from continuing to fight for its passage. She believes the movement has already achieved an important victory by fostering a much-needed conversation throughout New Orleans and the rest of the state on the growing epidemic of suicide.

“Suicide is a much bigger problem than we’re being told,” Brees said. “There’s so much shame associated with it, and it’s often invisible until it hits inside of your circle of friends and family. A lot of that comes with mental illness, but we’re breaking through that.

“So, I do feel like we’ve been so successful and that we’ll continue to be, and we’ll only be stronger with it next year.”

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