Few bills surface aimed at violence related to mental illness

Gary Grado//February 4, 2013

Few bills surface aimed at violence related to mental illness

Gary Grado//February 4, 2013

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the call to address problems with the mental-health system and keep guns from mentally ill people has been as persistent as the talk about restricting firearms.

But so far the call hasn’t been heeded, at least in terms of the number of bills pertaining to mental health compared to those related to gun legislation in the Arizona Legislature.

Arizona lawmakers have introduced at least a dozen bills having to do with restrictions on guns or protecting gun rights. They range from a proposal to ban the federal government from regulating Arizona-made firearms to bills that would reinstate the requirement of training to carry concealed weapons and limit the number of bullets in an ammunition clip.

So far, four bills introduced in response to the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., relate to mental illness. At least two more are expected to be introduced.

Lobbyists and lawmakers attribute the difference in the number of bills to the complexity of mental-health issues and the political expediency of attacking guns.

“It’s easy to say, ‘no clip over 10 rounds,’” said Sen. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican. “It’s much harder to say, ‘Hey, let’s identify a child who is having trouble, who’s struggling.’ What’s the difference between a kid who’s having a bad day and a kid who’s having a bad year, and that’s what we have to be able to identify?”

Crandall introduced bills on Jan. 31 to address funding for police officers in schools, allow teachers and principals to carry concealed firearms on school property, and pay for training for school counselors to identify unstable students.

Charles Arnold, an attorney who specializes in mental-health law, said he fears this year is shaping up to be a repeat of two years ago after the schizophrenic Jared Loughner struck in Tucson, wounding former Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and 12 others and killing six.

“At that time as well there was discussion of the mental-health issues, but no manifestation in the form of any legislation,” Arnold said.

‘Every measure possible’

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, and Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, have each introduced bills related to mental health or designed to keep guns out of the hands of someone who is unstable.

Campbell, who has offered a spate of bills to tighten gun restrictions and address mental health, said focusing on a single issue will not keep kids safe in school or curb gun violence.

“We need to put in place every measure possible to make it harder for the wrong people to get weapons,” Campbell said.

One of his proposals, HB2376, would require a police officer to seek a court-ordered mental evaluation if he encounters someone with a gun who might be a danger to himself or others. The officer would also have to seize the gun.

Campbell’s other mental-health bills include a proposal to appropriate $22.8 million for seriously mentally ill people who don’t qualify for Medicaid, and one to prohibit a person who is voluntarily hospitalized for mental-health treatment from possessing a gun.

Kavanagh’s HB2158 would double the time for forced mental-evaluations to 48 hours and allow a police officer to detain someone for evaluation based on witness statements or his own observations. Right now, police can’t base the detention on witnesses, just direct observation.

Kavanagh, a former police officer in New York and New Jersey, said requiring police to have direct observation and to rely on witnesses allows for unstable people to evade detention.

“Usually, by the time the police come, the situation is over or the mere presence of a police officer calms everything down,” he said.

Kavanagh said he will also introduce a bill that would require certain professionals such as school teachers, counselors and medical workers to report to police when they encounter someone who may be suicidal or a danger to others.

Kavanagh said it would be up to the police what to do with the person who has been reported.

Easier to attack guns

Todd Rathner, an Arizona lobbyist who is on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association, said it is much easier to attack guns through legislation. He said the complexity of the mental-illness issue can be illustrated by Loughner, whose bizarre and threatening behavior before the Jan. 8, 2011, Giffords shooting was known to Pima Community College and the Pima County Sheriff’s Office.

“There is no mechanism to get somebody like that into the National Instant (Criminal Background) Check System,” Rathner said. “What’s the threshold for being added to the NCIS system? We certainly can’t have a threshold of anybody with anxiety or depression goes into the NCIS system because that’s like 70 percent of the country, but by the same token there ought to be some means of determining when someone is too mentally unstable to own a firearm.”

Arnold said one idea is to require anyone who is put under a guardianship — someone who has been deemed by a court to lack the capacity to make responsible decisions — to be put into the NCIS system and to be unable to buy a gun. Arnold said there would have to be a process for the person under guardianship to challenge the gun restriction.

He said there are about 22,000 guardianships in Maricopa County alone.

“I think it’s a positive step and I see it as frankly kind of benign and one that might work its way through the political process,” Arnold said.