News Column

Tim Steller: NRA's 2-faced Stance on Mental Illness

Feb 13, 2013

Tim Steller

In January 2011, after a wildly psychotic Jared Loughner shot 19 people in Tucson, the National Rifle Association still wanted to make it easier for people judged mentally ill to rearm themselves.

Arizona's Legislature was considering ways for people committed by a judge to mental-health treatment to later request their gun rights back.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, populated by police chiefs and prosecutors, wanted a high standard for the person to show he deserved to have his gun rights restored: clear and convincing evidence.

The NRA wanted a lower standard: preponderance of the evidence. In fact, the NRA had demanded this in a variety of states where the issue arose, and at least one, Idaho, adopted it as law.

Initially, the NRA's insistence on making it easier for those committed by a judge to get their guns back scuttled the Arizona bill. But a couple of months later, the proposal passed as an amendment to another bill, with the higher standard, clear and convincing evidence.

Keep that in mind as you listen to NRA officials' insistence these days that our gun-violence problem is largely a mental-illness issue. As opposed as they say they are to gun possession by mentally ill people, they wanted those forced into mental-health treatment to have an easier time getting their guns back.

"It's definitely a contradiction," Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said Tuesday. "The preponderance standard is 'more likely than not.' That's a pretty low bar."

In interviews and other activities, the National Rifle Association continues to make the assertion, in ways both direct and subtle, that the gun-violence problem is really one of mentally ill people with guns. On Jan. 24, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action released results of a poll of association members.

Among the ideas almost unanimously supported: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill. Of those surveyed, 91 percent said they support "reforming our mental health laws to help keep firearms out of the hands of people with mental illness."

I asked a board member and a lobbyist for the NRA Tuesday what the group's position is now on how easy it should be for those forced involuntarily into mental-health treatment to get their gun rights back: Should the evidentiary threshold still be "preponderance of the evidence"?

Neither could say what the association's position is, and the NRA spokesman in charge of discussing the issue did not return calls seeking comment.

Tucsonan Todd Rathner, an NRA board member, said the group has been consistent and strong on the issue.

"We've been saying for 20 years that, once you've been adjudicated mentally defective, you should be entered into the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) database," he said.

"Mentally defective," by the way, is the phrase used in federal law, not Rathner's word choice.

"Whether a judge uses 'clear and convincing evidence' or 'preponderance of the evidence' is really an ancillary issue to whether the records are entered in the first place," he said.

That's true only to an extent. It turns out, the reason for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission to pursue the law in the first place, back in 2011, was to qualify for grants from the Justice Department to increase Arizona's submissions to the NICS database.

That is, Arizona needed the new law to get money to put more people judged mentally incompetent on the list of those prohibited from buying or possessing firearms.

That's how much the NRA cared about keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill after Loughner's rampage in Tucson. Makes you wonder why they care so much now.



Source: (c)2013 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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