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Arizona group strongly opposes 'red flag' gun laws

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The organization at the forefront of killing the last bid at enacting "red flag'' gun laws in Arizona is ready to quash it again if Gov. Doug Ducey tries again.
And Charles Heller of the Tucson-based Arizona Citizens Defense League said the details of what the governor might offer really don't matter.
"There's no acceptable version or modification of a red flag law that will work for Arizona,'' he told Capitol Media Services.
The organization has proven its strength, going back to 2018 when Ducey first proposed the idea of setting up a system that would allow judges to order examinations of people to determine whether they are a danger to selves or others and their weapons should be taken away.
A version of the plan actually was approved by the state Senate after the National Rifle Association agreed not to oppose it once the governor agreed to some changes. But the continued resistance from the politically powerful Citizens Defense League was enough to keep it from going anywhere in the House.
Ducey had no better luck with a somewhat different version in 2019.
"Politics intervened,'' he said at the time. And he hasn't brought it up since.
But now, in his last year in office -- and in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents that have moved the issue of gun regulations to the forefront -- the governor may try again.
"We thought it was good policy then,'' Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin told Capitol Media Services late last month.
"We still do,'' he continued. "And we remain committed to measures to increase school safety.''
The concept allows certain people to ask for a court-ordered evaluation based on evidence the person is a danger to self or others.
Ducey, for his part, never dubbed his program a red flag law. Instead, he said it would allow judges to issue a Severe Threat Order of Protection.
The difference, said Karamargin, is due-process protection for gun owners.
There would be a hearing where the person could dispute that evidence.
But it still would permit a judge to order what could be an involuntary evaluation and possible treatment. And, like a red flag order, that would preclude a person from purchasing or possessing firearms for up to 21 days, with options to renew for up to six months.
In introducing the proposal, Ducey cited what were, until that time, the five deadliest school shootings of the past 20 years, including the 2012 incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., where 27 died.
"In five out of five of the most deadly school shootings, the killers displayed warning signs of being a potential threat to themselves or others,'' according to the plan released by the governor. "This stunning fact illustrates the need for a legal tool to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals.''
There was no immediate response from an NRA lobbyist to what that organization now thinks of the idea of STOP orders. Heller, however, vowed full-scale opposition, saying such a law would only interfere with the constitutional rights of people to keep and bear arms without solving the problem.
Karamargin, however, said Ducey doesn't see what he proposed in 2018 and 2019 -- and may push again -- that way.
"It was a common-sense plan that protects the Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens while keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals who are a lethal threat,'' he said.
But Heller disagreed. And he also contends a new law -- whether labeled red flag or a STOP order -- really isn't necessary.
He said there is a section of the state's Public Health and Safety Code which allows "any responsible individual'' to seek a court-ordered evaluation who is alleged to be a danger to self or others as a result of a mental disorder. The same statute permits people to seek an examination of those "with a persistent or acute disability or a grave disability and who is unwilling or unable to undergo a voluntary evaluation.''
Just that sworn and notarized application is enough for the health department to conduct a screening examination. It says, though, that, absent an emergency, the person cannot be detained or even forced to agree to that exam.
But there also are procedures for police to pick up someone for emergency admission to the state hospital.
What makes all that relevant, said Heller, is that federal law makes it illegal to sell or give a firearm to anyone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.'' And he contends that prohibition applies permanently.
Less clear, though, is whether those existing laws allowing people to be incarcerated and treated for mental illness are broad enough to deny weapons to those who do not fit that definition but have other behavioral issues, like making threats, or are abusing drugs.
But Heller said even if STOP orders duplicate laws already on the books he still would be opposed.
"What is wrong with it is that it imposes multiple impairments,'' he said.
"If you don't use the law that already exists (and) you try and pass something else, you end up with government that can take a second bite at the apple,'' Heller complained. "You end up with government that if they can't get you guns one way, they'll get them another.''
And that, he said, is not acceptable -- especially when it involves constitutional rights.
"What you're doing is you're giving government more and more tools that it doesn't need,'' Heller said. "And if you give somebody more tools, they want to use them, they want to exercise authority.''
Then there's what he said is a more practical objection.
"We don't have the cops in Tucson to answer felony calls,'' Heller said, noting statements last year from the Tucson Police Officer's Association showing some Tucsonans waiting up to 23 hours for people to respond to a burglary that was no longer in progress.
"Where the heck are you going to get the manpower to enforce red flag laws?'' he asked. "Where are you going to find the cops to serve the order.
A TPD spokesman acknowledged Friday there was a time last year when officers did not respond to certain calls. But Sgt. Richard Gradillas said it was "never determined by felonies.''
He said there are still certain kinds of calls the agency encourages people to make a report over versus waiting for a police response, like car accidents with no injuries and shoplifting with no suspect in custody.
And Gradillas said officers will respond to burglaries, even if there is no suspect present "if there is evidence that needs to be collected.''
"Based on our call load, officers are still going out to a large majority of calls,'' he said.
Heller said it's not just red flag laws that his organization will oppose. He said that also goes for other proffered alternatives, ranging from universal background checks to bans on assault-style weapons. And he rejected the idea of saying that people should have to be 21 -- the age at which Arizonans can buy alcohol and marijuana -- before they can purchase a firearm.
"There's no enumerated right to marijuana or alcohol in the constitution,'' Heller said.
What he would support -- and says his group is willing to fund -- is a program like FASTER, short for Faculty and Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response. It covers everything from training school staff to carry weapons to providing trauma and first-aid response.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia