In the wake of this week’s Navy Yard shooting rampage and failed legislative attempts to restrict gun sales, Capitol Hill has once again drawn the focus to improving the country’s mental health system in order to prevent future tragedies.
Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat, has spearheaded the fight to expand mental health legislation—and now hopes a renewed urgency can help its passage. But the freshman Democrat is unfortunately all too familiar with gun violence and mental illness.
As the former district director for Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he was hit in the leg and face during the 2011 Tucson shooting where a mentally disturbed shooter opened fire at a constituent event, killing six and injuring many others, including Giffords. The congresswoman eventually stepped down as she continues rehabilitation after being shot in the head. Barber was elected to succeed her in a special election last year.
Barber introduced the bipartisan Mental Health First Aid Act in January, which would provide $20 million in federal grants to train police officers, teachers, students and others to recognize signs of mental health disorders and help them get appropriate care.
“If we can inform them and make them more aware of what they’re seeing, what the treatment options or available services are and know how to deescalate a crisis, I believe we can minimize at least to some degree the dangerous activities of people who go over the edge,” said Barber on Thursday’s The Daily Rundown.
The bill has already gathered at least 50 cosponsors, including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte.
Barber said he thinks attention on mental health services will continue to garner bipartisan support, but that he would also like to see background checks expanded – a more controversial debate between the parties, with some advocates fearing that linking the two in one bill could doom any progress on mental health reform.
“I also believe that expanded background checks are an important part of the answer,” said Barber. “We have ten categories of people in this country, including people who are seriously mental ill, who should not be able to buy a gun. As long as we have gaps in that background system, people can get a gun. If they’re linked and they go down together, that would not be a good thing.”