Friday, January 25, 2013

What Have They Learned?

Ever since the Steven Brooks story first broke, we've been trying to examine the important public policy questions behind the lurid scandal. Fortunately, we're finally seeing more of this discussion break into the "mainstream media". The RGJ's Ray Hagar pointed out what should be obvious yesterday.

Some lawmakers said Brooks' demeanor changed in the last few months. He got real loud and overbearing during an Assembly Democratic caucus meeting after the election, some Democrats said. He was suddenly an expert about stuff he knew little about. He was arrogant in the first place.

THIS THREAT about gun violence within the Nevada Legislature comes in the middle of an American hysteria over mass shootings.

We can't forget Newtown. Columbine, also unforgettable, seems like Pearl Harbor ancient history. We had another shooting incident last Tuesday at a Texas college, the very day this Brooks story was beginning to boil.

The Nevada Legislature has traditionally been very cheap about mental-health funding. It's not a top priority for a group that talks a good game about funding education but makes sure taxes remain low.

Now, concern over mental health and gun violence is at it's front door. One of their own, one of the Legislature's 63 esteemed elected officials, is knocking.

A new federal report on mental illness estimates that 45.6 million Americans suffered some sort of mental illness in 2011. Yet only 38.6% of those Americans received treatment. A full 25% of of those Americans suffering mental illness couldn't access treatment because they couldn't afford it.

We've lamented before how it's often easier to access firearms than mental health care. But my goodness, this is appalling. Nevada's mental health patients who've been involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals are rarely being added to the federal database that would restrict them from buying firearms.

“Individuals suffering from mental illness who pose a threat to themselves or others should be prohibited from purchasing a firearm,” [State Senator Ben] Kieckhefer [R-Reno] said in a statement. “Federal and state laws have been in effect for years to enforce this restriction. Unfortunately, here in Nevada, they are almost entirely unused.”

Kieckhefer, who formerly worked as a spokesman at the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said he is working with courts, law enforcement and mental health professions to draft a new law for the 2013 Legislative session which begins Feb. 4.

He said in an email that the intent of the law is to prevent not only those involuntarily committed to an institution from buying gun, but also those who, in the opinion of a psychiatrist, pose a danger to themselves or others.

"Many of these people are held for more than a week, treated and released before they ever get to their scheduled hearing," he said. "They were never formally committed by the judge, but have basically the same situation."

In 2011, just 178 of the 1,619 individuals psychiatrists filed petitions with the court to commit into the state's public mental hospital in Las Vegas were added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That system, known as NICS, is used in firearm sales to check whether someone is allowed to purchase a weapon.

And none of the petitions for the Dini-Townsend Hospital in Reno made it onto the federal database in Fiscal Year 2012. What happened?

Even current gun safety laws are not being fully enforced. Add to that the overall light load of gun safety standards, along with the gun lobby's resistance to reform.

Something has to change. Nevada legislators must realize this.

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