“What Should America Do About Gun Violence?”

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That was the title of the January 30th Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to consider how Congress should move forward to address gun violence. Emotions ran high as the hearing began with a statement from Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who survived a gunshot wound to the head two years ago. She still struggles with speech, but as she faced the Senate members, she spoke with a determination and force belying the gravity and urgency of her message. “Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”…

President Obama, Democrats, and Republicans alike have expressed the desire to enact “common sense legislation” around guns in the wake of what Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) refers to as the “wake up call,” the horrific shooting of twenty children and six adults in Newtown, CT on December 14th. Although the Senate hearing reflected agreement that such tragedies must be prevented in the future, there is a lack of consensus on what constitutes a “common sense” solution.  From our vantage point, five policy proposals withstood questioning in the four-hour hearing and should be key components of upcoming legislation. Here is a snapshot of these measures:

1.    Make background checks a universal practice, and close the gun show and private vendor loopholes.
Background checks are required at gun stores but not necessarily at gun shows or in a private sale, which, according to hearing witness James Johnson, Chief of Police in Baltimore County, MD, allows forty percent of guns to be purchased without a background check. When Wayne La Pierre, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA), argued that universal background checks will not be effective because criminals will not submit to them, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) emphatically exclaimed, “That’s the point!” LaPierre said that improved prosecution of gun-wielding criminals is the solution. Yes, prosecution is important, but Johnson responded, “The best way to stop a bad guy from getting a gun in the first place is a good background check.”

2.    Improve the background check system by ensuring relevant (mental health) data is available.
Hearing witness Captain Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords and co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, described how Jared Loughner, his wife’s shooter who was acknowledged to be mentally ill, was able to buy a gun despite having been submitted to a background check because no record of his illness existed in the background check system. His illness was not on any official record, but even if it was, the state of Arizona, as confirmed by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, has over 120,000 disqualifying mental health records that are not accessible in the current background check system. Mr. LaPierre agreed that mental health records must be made accessible in a national background check system.

3.    Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
LaPierre and the other anti-gun control witnesses, Lawyer Gayle Trotter and Professor David Kopel, argued that banning specific weapons or limiting gun magazines is by definition arbitrary, ineffective, unnecessary, or against the freedoms of the Second Amendment. However, Chief Johnson maintained that high capacity magazines are not necessary for hunting and the law should limit them to provide a “window of escape” while a shooter reloads. The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, which he chairs, fully supports the proposed bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

4.    Address the “matrix of failure” and adopt a holistic approach to improve our mental health system.
Captain Kelly was the first to acknowledge that “behind every victim lays a matrix of failure and inadequacy.” Everyone agreed upon the need to improve the mental health system. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) announced he will propose the Mental Health in Schools Act, while warning to be “careful here that we don’t stigmatize mental illness.” Kelly agreed with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and President Obama’s stated plan that funding for counselors and psychological providers in schools be increased.

5.    Enact a gun trafficking bill.
Senator Leahy has proposed a trafficking bill to cut down on straw purchasing. This measure received the least air time and no one in the hearing discussed trafficking in terms of Mexico. Please see previous LAWG blog on how new legislation could affect the gun flow and violence in Mexico. As Gabby Giffords said, “too many children are dying.” Children are disappearing and dying in Mexico by the thousands. Combating gun trafficking makes sense across international as well as state borders.

Tensions ran high, as usual, over the interpretation of the Second Amendment in terms of gun legislation, but Senator Leahy concluded that in upcoming sessions there should be “some areas of agreement.” Prior to the hearing, Mark and Jackie Barden published the article in the Washington Post  “Make the Debate over Guns Worthy of Our Son.” Their son Daniel, a bright and considerate seven-year-old, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Their family member created the Facebook page “What Would Daniel Do?” to celebrate his life and inspire others to act as Daniel did, listening and making room for dialogue. Congress should continue discussion of gun control legislation with that philosophy in mind, remembering the tragedies that have brought it to the table, always keeping in mind that the impact of lax U.S. gun policies reach far beyond the U.S. border.