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Barber pushes mental health in meeting with Biden on gun package

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, shown in a November photo, urged Vice President Joe Biden on Monday to include improved mental health services in any White House package of measures aimed to cut down on gun violence. (Cronkite News Service photo by Matthew Standerfer)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, urged Vice President Joe Biden on Monday to incorporate improved mental health care in any gun-control measures the White House proposes to reduce gun violence.

Barber was one of eight House Democrats to meet with Biden, who was charged by President Barack Obama with developing a response to the shooting last month that killed 26 people, most of them children, in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Barber, who was shot in the January 2011 attack at a Tucson Safeway that killed six and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said he is not in favor of banning any specific type of gun.

But he said Monday that watching Jared Lee Loughner spray the crowd with bullets in the Tucson shooting showed him that no one needs the kind of high-capacity magazine that was used in that attack. Barber said he supports a ban on such high-capacity magazines, as well as a call for better background checks on gun buyers.

The Tucson shooting also convinced Barber that better mental health care could prevent a repeat of such incidents. Loughner showed signs of schizophrenia before the attack, but remained undiagnosed.

That spurred Barber last year to introduce the Mental Health First Aid Act, which was focused on university students. The bill died, but Barber plans to introduce a revised version that calls for public servants such as teachers to be trained to recognize symptoms of mental health disorders and to connect those in need with professional help.

Barber said his plan, which he presented to Biden, would be funded through grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to schools and other qualifying organizations. He said his bill was crafted to make the initiative budget-neutral.

The vice president’s office had no comment on Monday’s meeting, which also included the attorney general and the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. But Barber said Biden seemed receptive to his ideas.

“I’m hopeful we will make progress,” he said.

The vice president has met in recent days with gun-control and gun-rights groups, lawmakers and representatives of the entertainment and video-game industries and was scheduled to make recommendations this week to the president.

Obama, meanwhile, called on Congress in a televised news conference Monday to come together to consider legislation that would strengthen background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

The president accused gun-control opponents of scare tactics.

“Those who oppose any commonsense gun-control or gun-safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government is about to take all your guns away,” he said.

But he went on to say that “responsible gun owners, people who have a gun for protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship, they don’t have anything to worry about.”

Obama said he will present details of a plan later in the week, after meeting with Biden, but he also warned that if Congress does not act he will attempt to make some changes through executive order.

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