SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



By Rep. Les Gara


August 22, 2007

People with mental illness deserve respect and community support. Instead, they're often used as political footballs. I've seen this as I've researched a poorly written federal ban on gun sales - a law that's contributed to the stereotyping of those who battle mental illness. An opinion column by Rep. Jay Ramras has also caused some alarm by misstating my position on this issue.

Hopefully, we can move forward on more important issues, like improving Alaska's mental health treatment system for families that fight mental illness. I've voted to do that. But first I'd like to soften the alarm created by Rep. Ramras' column, which had led to some unfortunate crossfire over an issue we actually agree upon.

In the wake of last spring's tragic Virginia Tech shootings, it came to light that Virginia didn't comply with the federal gun sales ban that likely would have prevented the shooter - who'd been determined by both the courts and treatment authorities to be an imminent "public danger" - from purchasing the weapons he used that tragic day. Twenty-eight states including Alaska don't comply with this federal law for various reasons. As we've researched the issue, we've found the federal law has both logical and very questionable components to it.

In part, this federal law seeks to logically block the sale of firearms to those few people deemed by the courts and state health authorities to be an imminent "public danger." As Rep. Ramras wrote in his column, stopping a gun sale to someone we know to be a true public danger makes sense. But we've learned the federal law goes too far. It also broadly bans the sale of guns to those fighting mental health problems who are no danger to the public, but have been committed involuntarily for mental health treatment for other reasons such as debilitating depression. And it continues to block the sale of firearms to people even after they've recovered from their illness.

Most people fighting mental health problems are no danger to the public at all. Mental health advocates nationwide have rightly objected to the way this federal law broadly stereotypes honest citizens with real health problems, by subjecting them to a clearance system originally intended to prevent the sale of weapons to dangerous criminals.

Rep. Ramras unfortunately stated in his column that I've proposed to ban Alaskans with mental health problems from purchasing weapons. I have no such proposal, and would oppose such an effort. Last month I wrote the Commissioner of Public Safety to point out this problem with the federal law, and how it doesn't distinguish between those very few people found to be a true danger to the public - like the shooter in the Virginia Tech case - and those who simply battle mental health problems and pose no danger to the public.

Rep. Ramras is also mistaken in arguing that I'd like to "list" people who battle mental illness. That would be offensive. People who fight mental illness are entitled to respect and privacy, and should be protected from any sort of listing.

Rep. Ramras and I both agree the federal law is troublingly broad, and leads to the unfortunate stereotyping of those who fight mental illness. And we agree that we should research to see if it is feasible to stop the sale of weapons to those very few people who are truly deemed to be a public danger. That's a real, though rare problem that's surfaced in Alaska as well as Virginia. A noted Anchorage shooting involved an Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) patient who went to a gun shop, listed his address as API, and purchased a weapon he used to shoot a well-respected Anchorage Police Officer.

Much more research, thought and consultation with mental health advocates is needed before anyone determines whether a responsible policy proposal is possible, and I don't have one.

Rep. Ramras and I will likely continue to disagree on the merits on issues where we truly have disagreement. Healthy debate serves the public well.

He'll likely continue to disagree with my proposal to increase Alaska's minimum wage. And I'll disagree with his position that we should roll back parts of Alaska's cruise ship tax.

But we shouldn't create disagreement where it doesn't exist. That's something that occurs in politics too often, and that blocks the progress we should make by working together.


Received August 21, 2007 - Published August 22, 2007

About: Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat, and has served in the House of Representatives since 2003.

Related Viewpoint:

letter Mental Health Firearm Listing Not Right for Alaska by Rep. Jay Ramras

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Ketchikan, Alaska