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Arizona's Surprisingly Good Mental Health Laws Might Have Prevented Tragedy

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Arizona's mental health laws are among the best in the country and might have been used to get Jared Loughner treatment if applied properly, says Charles "Chick" Arnold, the state's leading expert in mental health law.

"While our system sucks, our statutes are the best in the country," says Arnold -- Arizona's godfather of mental health law and plaintiff in the decades-old funding case Arnold v. Sarn.

Arnold is quick to explain that he doesn't have all the facts about Loughner. But given what is known, he says there's a chance that Pima Community College staff could have at least asked for help.

The lawyer explains that in most states, simple concern for a person's mental health is not enough to ask authorities for an involuntary evaluation.

But in Arizona it is.

The state is among only three or four that allows -- along with "danger to self," "danger to others," and "grave disability" -- a category for the "persistently and acutely disabled."

College authorities might have least argued for that category, Arnold says. "They could have knocked over a domino . . . that might have gotten him treatment."

Threats or reports of disturbing behavior -- like that reported to have led PCC officials to ask Loughner to not come back to school -- are enough to make an "application for an involuntary evaluation," Arnold says.

That would have led to an involuntary visit to a psychiatric emergency room and, depending on that evaluation, a 72-hour evaluation. Those doctors would then file a "petition for treatment" that gets a patient a lawyer and a hearing before a judge.

That hearing, Arnold says, could result in a judge filing the paperwork that would have been "the impediment to him getting a gun."

"But none of that happened," he concludes. "I can't tell yet whether somebody should have done something that they didn't do."

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