“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
That, of course, is the tried and true response some gun rights folks have to any argument for increased gun control of any sort, even universal background checks.
And it works. As we know from the Tucson tragedy and the Newtown horror, the gun lobby’s successfully quashed any federal and most state attempts to further control guns.
If you remember, after the clearly insane Adam Lanza and Jared Laughner went on their sprees, the gun lobby called for more examination of the mentally ill.
And in that intervening time, has any pro-gun legislator in Arizona introduced any legislation related to the mentally ill and ownership of guns?
Of course not.
At bottom, we know that in all too many cases, relatives of the crazed shooters had indisputable indications of serious problems, problems that needed immediate attention. And for whatever reasons, those problems weren’t addressed. So in many cases, relatives have to make the difficult decision to begin the legal process of requiring their family members to be institutionalized, at least for some kind of treatment.
That institutionalization is the only way guns are removed from Arizona citizens’ hands. According to our laws, only a person judged by a court “to be a danger to himself or others” and “been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution” can be prohibited from owning guns. However, that same person can have his rights to own a gun restored, too, under Arizona law.
People who voluntarily seek assistance or choose to be institutionalized, though, are free from that law and can continue to own and purchase guns.
But what about men and women law enforcement authorities encounter who are mentally unstable and possess guns?
A disturbing article in the New York Times highlights the problem. Few states allow law enforcement to remove guns in situations where they encounter an unstable person. Most states, including Arizona, abide by the federal guidelines “banning gun possession only after someone is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or designated as mentally ill or incompetent after a court proceeding or other formal legal process.” And as the article notes, “Relatively few with mental health issues, even serious ones, reach this point.”
Even states that give police more leeway in temporarily removing guns, like Connecticut, only allow for a brief confiscation of the weapons. The Times article, based on 1,000 cases from around the country, concluded that even in states with the most leeway given law enforcement, “authorities said they had no choice under the law but to return the guns after an initial seizure for safekeeping.”
So where are the NRA and other gun-rights groups? Where are our state legislators who proclaim that these killings are a mental health problem, not a gun problem?
No gun-rights legislator in Arizona has introduced any legislation that would further restrict the mentally ill from owning and obtaining guns. No gun-rights legislator in Arizona has introduced any legislation that would give law enforcement more authority to confiscate guns from the unstable.
In fact, our legislators have done just the opposite. In 2011, a law was enacted to make it easier for someone previously ruled mentally unstable to regain ownership of his weapons, restoring his firearm rights.
The same can be said of Washington’s inaction.
A few states this past year passed legislation that now requires mental health professionals to report patients who are “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” But as the Times article notes, those states are “outliers.” Most states — including Arizona — have done nothing.
So maybe, with the memories of Newtown still somewhat fresh, with the anniversary of the Tucson shootings (on Jan. 8), we might find our state legislators grappling with the very difficult issue of balancing rights of individuals who are mentally disturbed with the safety of the larger community.
But don’t hold your breath. This is an election year, and our legislators apparently want a short session so they can concentrate on getting reelected. Gotta have priorities, after all.
• Mike McClellan is an East Valley resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.