While Americans were horrified by the murders of 26 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many believe we lack the will to curb gun violence. Two years ago a crazed gunman severely wounded Representative Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others; we grieved for a few days and then returned to business as usual. Most Americans hope President Obama's speech at the Vigil for Sandy Hook Shooting Victims portends real change.
What was noteworthy was the way Obama framed gun violence. Instead of railing against it in the abstract, he linked it to "caring for our children." "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children - all of them - safe from harm?"
The President named each of the 20 murdered first-graders and asked, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?' He shifted the terms of the gun violence debate from restriction of second-amendment rights to protection of our children.
Sadly, there's a long history of horrific gun violence followed by noble words and then congressional inaction. Mother Jones Magazine reports, "Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii." The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a 39 page document of "Major School Shootings in the United States since 1997." The Center for Disease Controlreports there are 32 US gun-related homicides each day.
We are a nation of gun owners, "There are 89 guns for every 100 civilians... That amounts to roughly 270 million guns owned nationwide, far and away the highest gun ownership rate in the world."
In his December 19th press conference the President indicated his plan to reduce gun violence.
1. Tie gun violence to protection of our children.
2. Renew the ban on assault weapons and multiple-round ammunition magazines. Passed by Congress on Sept. 13, 1994, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban prohibited the manufacturing of 18 specific models of semiautomatic weapons, along with the manufacturing of high-capacity ammunition magazines that could carry more than 10 rounds. The ban expired in September 2004 when the Bush Administration did not support its renewal. Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to reintroduce the bill when the new Congress opens on January 3rd.
3. Expand background checks on gun transactions. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that mandates background checks on firearms purchasers. The Act establishes the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database for individuals who are banned from purchasing firearms. Although the Brady Act has broad support it has several defects. First, many states and federal agencies have not submitted mental health records to the system. Second, the act only covers purchases from federally licensed dealers. "Unfortunately, 40 percent of firearm acquisitions are from individuals who are not licensed gun dealers and do not undergo any background checks." Third, the database does not include "individuals on the federal government's watch list of terror suspects."
4. Improve mental health services. One of the problems with the current system is that it often does not encounter the dangerously mentally ill until it is too late. Speaking on the PBS News Hour, Dr. Katherine Nordal, from the American Psychological Association, observed
President Obama said, "We're going to need [to make] access to mental health at least as easy as access to a gun."
"At the root of a lot of the problems with violence in this country and the victims of violence are unmet mental health needs... [We] need to be able to better identify youth who are at risk to later develop mental health problems. We need better prevention programs in schools... We need school psychologists that are doing something other than testing children for special education classes that can work with teachers and administrators and families to identify young people that are developing problems... We need better-funded university counseling centers. And we need... better access to mental health treatment.
5. Crack down on violence in the media. President Obama acknowledged, "We're going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence." Many observers connected the Newtown killings to violence in the media: movies, music, television, and video games. What's not mentioned often enough is the increased amount of violence in public discourse. On December 17th, gun lobbyist Larry Pratt observed that Americans need assault weapons to protect themselves from government intrusion. It's the kind of comment that feeds the background paranoid buzz in our society, the notion that the US is going to turn into a totalitarian state. We need to fine any public figure that preaches such rubbish.
What's clear is that America has to change and President Obama is willing to lead this effort. "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children - all of them - safe from harm?"