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click to enlarge Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally

Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally

Mental Break

U.S. Rep. McSally's mental-health legislation gets across the finish line, but without provisions that ease background checks on gun sales

Congresswoman Martha McSally was celebrating last week after major portions of a bill she sponsored to provide more support for people with mental illnesses was attached to legislation dealing with the growing problem of heroin and painkiller addiction.

The 21st Century Cures Act passed the House of Representatives by a 392-26 vote on Nov. 30 and the U.S. Senate by a 94-5 vote on Wednesday, Dec. 7. It was headed for President Barack Obama's desk for a signature as of The Skinny's deadline.

McSally said the legislation was aimed at overhauling funding for the mental-health system to provide more resources for mental-health treatment as well as training for law-enforcement officers to better deal with lawbreakers with mental illness.

"The hope would be that those who struggle with mental illness would not be ending up in prison but that they would get the care they need prior to any infraction," said McSally, who added that this would help those with both mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems to get treatment "to become productive members of society and keep them out of prison. And those inside prison would be identified and there would be transition care of them so there wouldn't be a revolving door and ending up back in jail."

But one controversial element of McSally's proposed Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 did not make it into the final package: Provisions that would have made it easier for some people who have been determined to have mental illnesses to have their rights restored to carry firearms.

McSally said last week that she hoped that the provisions that eased the process for some people who had been prohibited from owning guns because they were mentally ill could be eased "in the future."

"I still think there are legitimate concerns about due process and there's a whole lot of legislation on this topic and many other topics that, as we wrap up this Congress, if it hasn't been able to get across the finish line, we're going to move strategically in the next Congress and identify what things we can still address and be leading on," McSally said.

While McSally had said that her original legislation would have strengthened background checks to prevent people with mental illnesses to acquire firearms, opponents of gun violence such as Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly argued that her bill would have actually made it easier to some prohibited possessors to have their rights to own guns restored.

Kelly and Giffords—whose career in Congress was cut short almost six years ago after a crazed gunman opened fire at her Congress on the Corner event in January 2011, killing six and wounding 13—now head up Americans for Responsible Solutions. They launched the political action committee and advocacy group to combat gun violence after the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a madman shot his mother, stole her guns and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Kelly told the Weekly earlier this year that McSally's original legislation provided "a path for people who are mentally ill to get permission to carry a gun earlier than what exists today. So that's a problem."

McSally's original legislation would have required the U.S. Attorney General's Office to remove the names of an unknown number of the more than 4 million people who had been added to the list of prohibited possessors for reasons related to mental health, provided their court orders have expired or they were released from involuntary confinement. Under the current law, those who want to have their names removed from the background-check list must petition a local or state court before their rights are restored.

McSally's original legislation would have also made it more difficult to add names to the background-check list in the future because it would have narrowed the legal requirements necessary to make the determination that someone belongs on the list. In some states, for example, a doctor's determination that someone needs to be involuntarily committed would no longer be enough to have a name added to the list of prohibited possessors. (For more details on McSally's original legislation, see "Loaded Legislation," Tucson Weekly, Feb. 4.)

Pia Carusone, a senior advisor with Americans for Responsible Solutions, said that her organization worked with Sen. John Cornyn's office to strip out provisions that made it easier for people who have been judged mentally insane to have their rights to own firearms restored, but McSally's office did not engage in those negotiations.

"We were glad to work successfully with Republican Sen. John Cornyn to remove provisions that would have weakened the background checks system," Carusone told the Weekly. "We hope to continue working across the aisle in the future to prevent dangerous people from having access to firearms. If Rep. McSally continues to introduce legislation that allows the dangerously mentally ill to have firearms, we will continue to oppose it."

Trade Talk

Etherton Gallery hosts a conversation about the future of U.S.-Mexico trade relations

Not content with being one of Tucson's best galleries, downtown's Etherton Gallery is also getting into the political forum biz.

In conjunction with the current exhibit La Calle: Photographs from Mexico by Alex Webb, Etherton is presenting a panel discussion on the importance of cross-border trade between Arizona and Mexico. With trade relations with Mexico on the upswing after the disruptions caused by Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation, there are plenty of questions about how President-elect Donald Trump's plans to "renegotiate" NAFTA and make Mexico pay for a border wall will impact the local economy.

The panel will include Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, the Consul of Mexico to Tucson Ricardo Pineda Albarrán and a representative from the office of Congressman Raúl Grijalva. Michael Mallozzi, co-owner of Beer without Borders and owner of Borderlands Brewery, will also be on hand. Nancy Montoya of Arizona Public Media will moderate the panel.

The forum is 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave.

Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs at 5 p.m. Sunday on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM. This week's guests are former Republican lawmaker Jonathan Paton and Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod, who will discuss the major political stories of 2016 and preview the major political trends of 2017.

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