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Why we should not ridicule Assemblyman Steven Brooks

By now, you’ve probably seen the photo of Assemblyman Steven Brooks with his shirt off. It’s a hazy photo, maybe taken with a cell phone, of Brooks bare-chested, staring at the camera, lips parted, arms outstretched in a "Christ-on-a-cross" manner — seemingly unaware that his provocative pose, his toplessness, is a strange state for a politician to be photographed in.

The photo, which was taken during Brooks’ first interview since being released from jail, ran this morning with a Review-Journal story by Benjamin Spillman.

Brooks was arrested Saturday, Jan. 19, for allegedly threatening Nevada Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, saying her first “first day as speaker would be her last.” Brooks was reported to have been driving around with a gun, looking for Kirkpatrick. That evening, Brooks was arrested in Las Vegas on a felony charge of intimidating a public officer by threat of physical violence. A gun, as well as 41 rounds of ammunition, were found in his car.

Since Brooks’ arrest, other scandalous details have come out about the assemblyman: He has run-ins with gangs, he fights with neighbors, he acted “a little strangely” and walked out during a recent finance committee meeting. In his talk with Spillman, Brooks indicated he still thinks Kirkpatrick wants to harm him.

The photo, like the story itself, is bizarre and captivating. But rather than seeing this sad saga for what it is — a national problem manifesting close to home — we have treated Brooks as a freak show, an opportunity for a public laugh.

It is time to stop laughing.

Through snarky tweets, nasty reader comments and newsroom jokes, we've dismissed Brooks' behavior as comical, deserving of ridicule because nothing came of his delusions, no one was hurt. But what if something had happened? Would it still be funny then? The answer is no.

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, in which a mentally ill man shot and killed 20 children and six adults, gun control and mental health have skyrocketed to the top of the national conversation. Now here we are in Las Vegas, faced with a case that is a blatant, a loud and clear intersection of these two serious issues — and we gawk.

Even Kirkpatrick, the target of Brooks’ alleged threats, has mocked him. In a story today, R-J reporter Ed Vogel wrote that Kirkpatrick mimicked his “Jesus-on-the-cross” photo, and said she wants to put it behind her and move on.

The fact remains: By every appearance, Brooks is a mentally ill man who has access to guns, and Kirkpatrick, for that matter. In her interview with Vogel, she said Brooks would not be banned from Legislature.

The day before he threatened Kirkpatrick, Brooks was seen at Seven Hills Behavioral Center, a mental-health facility. In the police report detailing his arrest, his wife, Ada Brooks, told police that Brooks’ condition has been deteriorating. “Ada also told me that during the last few months her husband’s mental health has been getting worse and she is worried about him,” the report states.

Add to this, Brooks’ fondness for guns. The gun he was carrying when he threatened Kirkpatrick was not his own. He is now claiming he has an armed bodyguard, and also cited Second Amendment rights in his conversation with Spillman.

This is not an indictment of Brooks. He is an ill person, who is a husband, father, former teacher and coach. Still, he has clearly demonstrated delusions and an attachment to firearms. We have the opportunity here to help someone, and to prevent people from getting hurt. In many ways, this presents a test case for Nevada. If we can't figure out how to help a guy who is imploding so spectacularly in full public view, how can we create a system to that will help quieter, less visible cases?

It's human nature to laugh off tragedy that doesn't happen, just as it's human nature to wonder, when it does happen, why we didn't see it coming.

Regardless of how we ultimately address this, one thing is for certain. We should not laugh, and we should not simply move on.

Update: As this was written, Brooks was taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation after exhibiting strange behavior at a relative's house. He is being held on a "Legal 2000," which could detain him for up to 48 hours.