Citing the shootings in Tucson, a southern Arizona lawmaker wants to force public schools, community colleges and universities to report students whose behavior might make them dangerous if they ever got a gun.
The legislation by Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, would require all public entities to notify the Department of Public Safety when a person has "suffered a significant or severe psychological episode or incident" and that incident has been documented in writing. DPS would get that person's name, date of birth and Social Security number.
Heinz said his real goal is to get that information into the same database that gun shops must check before making a sale to see if the would-be buyer is precluded from having a weapon. That list, he said, already includes people convicted of felonies and those on probation after being convicted of domestic violence offenses.
He said if a system like this were already in place it is possible that Jared Loughner, the person accused of the Jan. 8 assault that killed six and wounded 13, would never have been able to buy the Glock 9.
Alessandra Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said she understands what Heinz is trying to do.
Meetze said, though, that HB 2521 as crafted could unfairly and illegally infringe on individual rights. And she said there are too many unanswered questions, ranging from what qualifies as a reportable incident to the fact that someone could wind up on that list and never know.
Heinz said the shooting did not occur in a vacuum.
"There were some indicators that preceded that event ... that I believe could have been reported," he said. Campus police reported they had met with Loughner five times over seven months about classroom outbursts and other behavior issues before he ultimately was suspended.
"I believe that had they been reported to a database, that perhaps this individual would not have been able to obtain the weapon in the way he did," Heinz said.
Meetze pointed out there is no definition in the legislation, of what constitutes a significant or severe psychological episode or incident, or even who makes that decision.
"Is that a professional medical determination?" she asked.
Heinz conceded his measure does not spell out when the line is crossed. But he said that, in his mind, there is no question but that the activities attributed to Loughner would fit the definition.
"When it gets to the point where an institution such as Pima Community College or any institution of higher learning, or any political subdivision removes or dis-enrolls a person because of that instability, I think that crosses the line where it needs to be reported," he said.
And Heinz said he has no problem with that determination of a psychological episode being made by teachers and administrators, rather than medical professionals.
"These are the folks who are with these individuals more than anyone else," Heinz said.
"And I wouldn't say that professors, board members and those who have experience in educational institutions are just ‘lay' people," he said. "They have a tremendous amount of experience with psycho-social circumstances and actually could be invaluable in helping detect these kinds of things in the future."
Meetze also said there is nothing in the legislation which informs someone that his or her name has been put into the database by some school official, or even gives that person a chance to appeal the decision. Heinz called the idea of an appellate process "a reasonable idea I'm more than open to discuss."
There also is the unanswered question of what happens if someone believes a school failed to identify and report certain behavior and the student ultimately gets a gun and kills or injures someone. Heinz said it is an open question of whether that makes the school or the staffer legally liable.
"That's a very important issue we need to address," he said.
A spokesman for Pima Community College said school officials were reviewing the legislation but had no comment.