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Gun bill advances, but foes say it doesn’t go far enough

A Senate panel voted 4-3 on April 19 to allow judges to force some people to surrender their weapons – but only after a multi-step process that supporters say will protect due process rights.

But SB1519 has what foes say is a glaring loophole. It does nothing to expand existing laws designed to ensure that those people who should not have a gun from getting one, such as universal background checks before a weapon can be sold.

Arizona Senator Steve Smith, R-Maricopa

Sen. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa)

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce and Public Safety, said it was purposely designed that way.

“Pridefully, mind you, I’m A-plus rated by the NRA,” he told dozens of people who came to testify.

“I intend on keeping it that way,” Smith said. “I am not going to run a piece of legislation that I think runs afoul to our constitutionally guaranteed Second Amendment rights.”

But Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, who raised the question of expanding requirements for background checks on potential buyers, said she disagrees with how Smith sees the issue.

“I don’t think we’re asking to take away gun rights,” she said. “I support responsible gun owners.”

Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, was more direct in her response.

“You may be proud of your NRA rating,” she told Smith. “But this bill rates a D-minus,” saying 40 percent of gun sales are unregulated, not subject to background checks.

“Cash, carry, no questions asked,” Hills said.

SB1519 contains provisions that proponents say will help reduce gun violence, particularly at schools.

The heart is the ability of individuals, including family members, school administrators, significant others and those who have cohabited with someone to file legal papers asking a judge to order someone picked up.

What’s required is a “credible threat” of death or serious physical injury or some sort of actual or attempted act of violence in the prior six months that was intended to cause death or serious physical injury to self or others.

A judge who determines there is enough in the complaint to pursue the matter can order police to pick up that person for an initial hearing where the person can be present, have counsel and make his or her own case.

A judge who determines there is “clear and convincing” evidence of a threat can to issue a Severe Threat Order of Protection allowing that person to be held for evaluation and that person must surrender a firearm for up to 21 days, a period that can be extended. Having a weapon while under a STOP order would subject the person to felony charges.

Democrats won’t support the package as it is, with one key issue being the failure to enact universal background checks.

In proposing the measure last month, Ducey said he wants to be sure that those who should not have access to guns are kept from obtaining one. That’s why he wants changes to the system that requires courts and others to report convictions into a national database, the one used by federal firearms dealers to determine whether they can sell a gun to a customer.

But Arizona law does not require such checks for personal sales. And that includes people selling one or more weapons at gun shows. And Democrats contend it does no good to have someone declared a “prohibited possessor” if that person still can obtain a weapon anyway.

That’s only part of the problem.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, noted that Ducey has spoken of his meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott whose state enacted its own school safety plan in the wake of the killing of 17 students at a Parkland high school. Yet the Arizona plan does not contain some of the key provisions in the new Florida law, including raising the age to possess a weapon to 21 and a ban on “bump stocks” which can convert a semi-automatic weapon to be able to fire hundreds of rounds a minute.

And Bowie said someone who is subject to a court order must turn over weapons immediately rather than 24 hours later.

That last point got the attention of Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer. She said the legislation permits someone to have his or her guns for 24 hours “after a judge has just said, ‘Oh, you’re an imminent threat to kill yourself or somebody else.”

The legislation also contains some proposals aimed directly at school safety, including:

– Age-appropriate school safety training, including “active shooter” drills.

– Campus visitors having to provide identification.

– A central telephone hotline for students, teachers and others to notify of potential threat.

– Reporting incidents as appropriate to police and parents.

And schools would need a safety plan, one that Smith said could include arming school employees.

Some of what’s in the plan – and much of what is not – drew criticism.

Dave Kopp of the Arizona Citizens Defense League said there appears to be too much focus on weapons and not enough on school safety. He wants to arm staff, secure school perimeters and have stronger doors and windows, “things like that to make the building a harder target.”

Tucsonan Ken Rineer, president of Gun Owners of Arizona, who has advocated for arming teachers, had similar objections to anything he believes infringes on gun rights.

“This bill is more about seizing firearms than about treating mental illness,” he told lawmakers.

Conversely, Bowie pointed out that some things that Gov. Doug Ducey first proposed, things he likes, have fallen off the table. For example, the governor sought to hold adults responsible when children get guns and to deny permits to carry concealed weapons to those with outstanding arrest warrants.

Anni Foster, one of Ducey’s attorneys, conceded the point. But she said her boss jettisoned those provisions to come up with a “workable” bill that could get the necessary votes – in this case, Republican votes given Democrat opposition.

Will Gaona, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, objected to a proposal to put more police “school resource officers” into schools.

He said the evidence is that putting police into schools ends up entangling them in discipline issues, with some things that should be handled by administrators instead becoming criminal matters. More significant, Gaona said minorities are far more likely to end up arrested than others.

Smith reacted angrily, saying that armed officers are a key way of dealing with an armed criminal on campus. And he said these are crucial given that police are usually “minutes away” from an active shooting situation.

“You have to have someone meeting force with force,” he said.

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