The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 20, 2013

Lawmaker advocates easing power of attorney choice

CHARLESTON — Guns are on the minds of many in the aftermath of last month’s schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut.

Delegate Margaret Staggers isn’t among those putting blame for the Sandy Hook carnage on the inanimate object of wood and steel.

Rather, she says people need to realize that firearms are not the underlying issue in mass violence, but the real culprit there and in other mass executions is mental illness.

“This isn’t a gun problem,” the Fayette County lawmaker says.

“I own lots of guns but I haven’t gone out and killed anyone.”

In reality, says Staggers, it is society’s failure, either through ineptness or unwillingness, to cope with emotional disorders that trigger mass killings.

“Most of these guys who have done the killings didn’t own the guns,” the Democratic delegate said.

“They had access through the family — brothers, fathers, uncles.”

Staggers points out that in Newtown, Conn., the lone gunman had acquired his firearms from his mother, who bought them, in spite of his mental troubles.

In her work as an emergency room physician, Staggers is accustomed to patients coming in and issuing threats to either themselves, relatives, acquaintances or groups of strangers in collective groups.

“Usually, the one we get in our area is against blacks, but I’ve heard them against Jewish people,” she said.

“I’ve heard them say, ‘I’ll kill all the women.’ Or they’ll be against certain ethnic groups, and religious groups, like ‘Kill all the Muslims.’”

 Staggers says such threats fit the same general profile as the Connecticut shooter — usually a male, age 18 to 24, the same bracket where suicides and murders are more frequent.

For the third year in a row, Staggers is trying to take what she considers “one small step” in dealing with the unstable with violence on their minds.

As the law now stands, one can get a mental hygiene warrant to have one committed temporarily, but once treatment is provided and the patient is restored, there is nothing to prevent a lapse.

And then what? A repeat of the process?

Under her proposed legislation, a patient who has been treated but slips into the murky world of mental confusion and becomes unstable once more, could again get help when a relative or acquaintance, by his own volition, has been named as his power of attorney.

“This was a real simple bill but it had great opposition, because they said these people were disabled and I was discriminating against the mentally ill,” Staggers said of her bill offered the first time three years ago.

Under normal circumstances, once a disturbed person is committed, after three days he or she is adjudged competent and is released.

“The only thing my bills says is that someone would come and talk to them about the power of attorney and explained to them this was an unpleasant experience, the police brought you in with handcuffs, and would you like to have someone that you consider close enough to you that you would trust to be your power of attorney,” Staggers said.

“So if they see this happening again, they can get you in for help.”

Staggers says her bill merely would allow those who have been treated for emotional disorders to make the decision about having a designated power of attorney, in case they revert into the old condition and potentially pose a threat to themselves or others.

In current policy, merely lodging a verbal threat isn’t illegal, unless it involves the current occupant of the White House, in which case a federal offense has occurred. Once someone is given mental treatment and is ruled capable of re-entering society, Staggers says her bill would at least allow the patient to identify one close to him as the power of attorney so the individual could be helped again when signs of the old difficulties resurface.

“I’m not rewriting the constitution,” the doctor says.

“So many people out there are tortured and they’re hurting. It’s not like we’re doing anything bad to them. All we’re asking is, ‘Could you protect yourself when that time comes?’”

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