For Rep. Ron Barber, the discussion about gun violence and mental health that has followed December’s elementary school shooting has a deeply personal element: The Arizona Democrat was among the injured after a mentally unstable gunman opened fire on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in 2011.
But his interest in mental health dates back to long before the Tucson, Ariz., shooting, stemming from his time as a Head Start director and 32 years with the Division of Developmental Disabilities in the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Although the division’s primary focus is on people with disabilities, he noted, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the people served also have a mental-health diagnosis.
Barber said his involvement boils down to an enduring interest in civil rights and a realization that, in some ways, the issue of disabilities was “the last frontier of the civil rights movement.”
“It really is about making sure that people are fully included in a community, not isolated, segregated, in an institution, but really have an opportunity to have complete lives, and that’s kind of been my life’s work,” he said in an interview.
Barber is one of many lawmakers who has a strong connection to the issue, either personally, because of a career before Congress, or both, and has made mental health a priority. A number of those members have introduced legislation focused on mental health in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, hoping to parlay their knowledge and the energy of the moment into change.
In Barber’s case, his approach to the issue in Congress has been shaped by his career and his experience as a victim of the 2011 shooting. As Giffords’ district director, he was standing beside her when the shooter opened fire, causing the brain injury that led to Giffords’ resignation a year later and his ascent to her seat.
“When I was well enough to read the accounts of the shooting and to learn more about the shooter, what was apparent — and this has been true in other cases, unfortunately — was that he was displaying a lot of symptoms of mental illness long before he shot us,” Barber said. “Yet no one did anything to get him treatment, to get him a diagnosis ... that was a problem that I felt we really should address.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.