As he looked into Jared Lee Loughner's eyes Thursday, U.S. Rep. Ron Barber sensed the gunman who shot him on Jan. 8, 2011, understood what he was saying about the tragedy's impact.
Barber said medication that appears to be helping the 24-year-old Loughner could have prevented him from committing the Tucson mass shooting.
Loughner, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after the shooting, chose not to speak at his sentencing hearing Thursday in federal court.
"It's a sad commentary that the only way he gets treatment is by killing six people and wounding 13 others. Now he's getting the treatment he should have got a long time ago," said Barber, noting that Loughner made eye contact and appeared engaged in what Barber told him at the sentencing.
"Had Jared Loughner been able to get treatment when he was showing signs, Jan. 8 might never have happened," Barber said later Thursday in an interview.
Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Barber, who was then a congressional aide. While Judge Larry A. Burns stressed during sentencing that Loughner was not legally insane on Jan. 8, 2011, Barber and others speculate that Loughner's undiagnosed mental illness certainly fueled the killings.
"The lesson I take away from this is maybe a little different because of my history working with people with mental illness for 32 years," said Barber, who had a long career with the state's division of developmental disabilities before going into politics. "My experience in that whole field has influenced the way I look at the events of Jan. 8."
What's troubling to Barber is that 22 months after the shooting there are still what he calls dangerous gaps in the mental-health system and in laws about mental illness and guns. They need to be fixed to prevent more tragedies, he says.
Among those gaps are the laws on when someone can be committed and treated for mental illness against his will, public knowledge about how to commit someone, and awareness of how to otherwise intervene if someone is showing signs of mental illness, Barber said.
"When you look at who knew what was going on with him (Loughner), clearly his friends did, his parents did, fellow students at Pima Community College did, and also the college itself expelled him or told him he couldn't come back unless he got a psychiatric evaluation," Barber said. "Any one or more of those people, if they had been better informed perhaps, or more proactive, could have taken the steps toward involuntary treatment."
Right now, unless someone showing signs of mental illness agrees to voluntary hospitalization and treatment, the only option left for the people around that person is to seek involuntary treatment, which includes a judicial process to protect individuals' civil rights. The standard is whether the person is a danger to himself or to others.
"We need to look at this relatively new phenomenon where young people in our country are motivated to take revenge for whatever demon is inside them, whatever voice is talking to them, to do something really awful at a major level like what happened on Jan. 8," Barber said. "I think we know there is a point in life where this is more likely to occur. If we pay more attention to what people say on their Facebook or social media and could then use that as evidence to get them treatment, I think we'd be going a long way in preventing the kind of reoccurrence of the kind of tragedy we saw here."
Certainly most people with mental illness are not violent, he stressed.
"The 10 percent who are prone to violence usually have a very serious mental illness like Jared, where voices are telling them to do things and they just lose control of themselves and a lot of times they will commit a violent act," Barber said. "But with treatment, most of that could be avoided."
Barber said the system of preventing people from buying guns if they have been committed to a psychiatric facility is flawed on the mental-health side. There are more than a dozen different reporting procedures in Arizona, and many people who have been committed were never reported, he said.
He also noted that bullying has been a factor in the suicides of at least four young people in the Tucson area since Barber and his family set up their Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding after the shooting. He hopes the fund continues to be a mechanism to help solve mental-health issues in the community.
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4134.