Could it be that Pope Francis’ visit which brought Jon Boehner to tears, will inspire the House Speaker to show some courage and allow a vote on a bipartisan bill requiring universal background checks and closing the gun show loophole before he exits? The man who tears up at the drop of a hat, can show himself to be a man of fortitude, a real hero.
Boehner has it within his power to bring a bipartisan bill calling for commonsense gun regulations – supported by the vast majority of Americans – that would call for universal background checks and keep guns out of the hands of felons, terrorists, domestic abusers and the mentally ill.
Congressman Steve Israel did not exactly pose the question that way but, appearing on the steps of Great Neck South Middle School last Friday, flanked by the schools superintendent, Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, Nassau County Acting District Attorney Madeline Singas and Janina Bandi, chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, he noted that it was within Boehner’s power to allow a vote on the bipartisan bill, HR 1217, introduced by none other than Republican Peter King of Long Island and Democrat Mike Thompson (CA) (who proudly wears his NRA button in his lapel). The bill already has 182 cosponsors (it would need 218 votes to pass).
Congressman Israel chided his colleagues in Congress for their moments of silence over what has become twice-monthly mass shootings, but stalwart inaction.
“Exactly one year ago, the entire country was swept up about fear of Ebola – 2 people died. Yet, the entire US Congress demanded immediate action – hospitals reconfigured, the White House engaged and there was action – as there should have been – to save lives against the threat,” Congressman Israel said.
“In one year, 30,000 have lost their lives to guns. Two to Ebola. 30,000 to guns. But in the year since, there has not been one hearing, not one committee meeting, not one bill, not one finger lifted in Congress to deal with gun violence.
“About every week, we’ve had a moment of silence, memorializing Americans killed in mass shooting. Enough silence. It’s time for action. American people have had it with inaction. Two people from Ebola. 88 Americans will die today as a result of gun violence. 30,000 in a year. There are been 300 mass shootings this year alone and it isn’t yet finished,” he said.
“Why I’m so frustrated? We know what we have is not working. We know what will work: commonsense reforms like universal background checks, which 90% of Americans support. It’s not hard. Even in this polarized environment, 90% supporting something is rare. Yet the NRA lobby is stopping action on what 90% – and the vast majority of NRA members- support.
“Too many of my colleagues are silent. We should make it harder, not easier for the mentally ill, terrorists, people on the do-not-fly list, to obtain guns. But for every day there is a moment of silence and not action, we are making it easier. That is an abysmal failure of responsibility…If only Congress responded with as forceful power as it did on Ebola, this school would be safer.”
That point was driven home by Great Neck Schools Superintendent Dr. Teresa Prendergast, who described the lock down and table top exercises, an entire security apparatus including single point of entry to buildings, cameras, assembly programs for the youngest grades. “It’s reflective of the times,” she said.
How much does securing our schools against a madman who can so easily acquire a military-grade weapon cost? Dr. Prendergast said that the school district spends $1.8 million on security (not counting the expanded bus transportation program that was put into effect to increase security for children who would otherwise walk to school). In an era of budget caps, she remarked, “Every dollar that is taken for security comes out of the classroom. We would we love to have that money for academic programs.”
New York has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation – thanks particularly to the SAFE Act which was passed shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Ct. – and while New York State is one of 21 states with tighter background check laws, without a comprehensive federal law many guns used illegally in New York are trafficked from states with less prohibitive gun laws. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives nearly 70 percent of firearms recovered and traced in New York State came from out of state.
“In Nassau County, one out of five crimes involve firearms. Nassau County is one of the safest counties, but is not immune,” said Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, a member of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence. “A national tragedy can be avoided with a little commonsense courage to take action. We are doing everything we can but legislative leaders in Washington need to have courage to stand up, support commonsense measures like background checks, adjudicated mental illness, straw purchases.”
Background checks are effective: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 1993, created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and required federal background checks on firearm purchasers in the United States. Since its inception in November 1994, roughly 2.4 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers have been prevented because of background checks. But presently, there are huge loopholes in the system , for firearm sales made at gun shows, over the internet, or through private sellers, which fails to prevent the mentally ill, domestic abusers, or criminals from purchasing firearms.
But criminals know they can go to another state and buy with no questions asked.”
As Janina Bandi, the volunteer Chapter Leader for the New York Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, noted, 32 states don’t require any background checks (only 18 do). But when there is sensible regulation, 46% fewer women are shot and killed by intimate partner; 48% fewer people are killed when guns not easily accessible.
“Requiring background checks on all gun sales is the single most important thing we can do to reduce the gun violence in our country that kills 88 Americans every day and injures hundreds more. We don’t have to choose between protecting the Second Amendment and saving lives — we can do both.”
There is absolutely no reason at all while the Aurora shooter, who murdered so many innocents in a movie theater in Colorado was able to buy 4,000 rounds of ammo – no questions asked – over the internet. The dealer did not even know (or care) if he was a minor.
Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, who has battled for sensible gun measures for more than 20 years in and out of government, evoked John Lennon and Carolyn Maloney’s husband, who was murdered by the LIRR shooter. “Enough. Churches, schools, movie theaters, restaurants. Am I next? We need universal background checks. New York passed SAFE Act and has the fourth lowest gun death rate in the nation.
Former Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, sent a statement saying, “I know all too well the heartbreak and loss families of gun violence go through. words no longer enough. Sending our thoughts and prayers to the families affected by gun violence is no longer enough. We need substantial change in the way we approach this epidemic because saving lives should never be a partisan issue. Until we pass commonsense gun legislation in this country, I will continue my mission to fight for the families like mine that were forever changed by gun violence.”
And the Republican shell-game of placing the blame for the violence caused by easy access to highly lethal weapons and high-capacity magazines on mental illness, is contradicted by New Jersey Governor and Republican Presidential hopeful Chris Christie recent veto of a bill that would have included local law enforcement officers in the process of deciding whether a person with a documented mental illness could apply for a gun permit.
Rep. Israel is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1217 the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, also known as the bipartisan King-Thompson legislation, which expands background checks by closing gun sale loopholes and requiring comprehensive and enforceable background checks on all commercial gun sales. Additionally, Rep. Israel is a co-sponsor of H.R. 3411, the Fix Gun Checks Act, which was originally introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy before she retired. This legislation would expand background checks, close gun sale loopholes including person-to-person sales, and makes it harder for the mentally ill to acquire guns.
Introduced in March by (amazingly) Peter King, R-LI, the preamble to HR 1217 says, “To protect Second Amendment rights, ensure that all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a firearm are listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and provide a responsible and consistent background check process.”
In fact, it is an incredibly modest, stripped down proposal which only addresses background checks and closing the gun show loophole (www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1217/text). You would think that the most ardent gun rights advocate would be happy to pass it, just to shut down any further, meaningful gun regulation by tossing these few crumbs which are wildly popular.
“Nobody really believes by passing legislation to close gun show loophole we would be repealing 2nd Amendment,” Congressman Israel said at the press conference on Friday. “That is an absurd argument. I will not support taking guns from law-abiding gun owners. This is about criminals, terrorist, mental illness.” (Donald Trump opened a South Carolina rally by saying that President Obama is planning to sign an executive order taking everyone’s guns away.)
“Remember air raid drills? We don’t worry about that but have mass shooting drills. We are in a climate where we have to keep us safe not from nuclear weapons but a deranged person with a gun.”
I note that this proposal to make background checks universal is a great first step, but what about restoring the assault weapons ban that George W. Bush allowed to expire in 2004 (count up how many mass shootings in the blink of an eye have taken place since then and how many lives lost), and large capacity ammo?
“No where,” he said with resignation that is why so many people are fed up with government dysfunction. “They not only have refused the assault weapons ban and ban on large capacity magazines, but put a rider on a bill that prevents the CDC [Center for Disease Control] from even studying the relationship and statistics showing gun deaths, gun violence and public health.”
“I am hopeful that before Boehner leaves, he will allow bringing it to the floor for a vote. Then members can vote yes or no. We are asking for Boehner, as one of his last acts before leaves, to give us a vote.
“I guarantee that if it gets to the floor, it will pass House. What happens in Senate is another issue – I would guess would be filibustered. But we should do our job.”
In other words nothing would be done – the action would simply be a sop.
What about smart guns? You would think that gun manufacturers would jump at the chance to replace 300 million obsolete guns, much as Apple gets their I-phone users to replace their I-phones. They could do imaginative trade-in deals.
“We actually thought about that,” Congressman Israel told me. “The biggest purchaser of guns from manufacturers is the federal government. We can set standards by requiring it in the specs.
Congressman Israel seems to be settling for very modest goals, leaving out a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips, or making the gun manufacturers and gun dealers liable when their weapons. As Secretary Hillary Clinton noted during the Democratic Presidential Debate, why should the gun industry singularly be exempt from any accountability among all industries?
Why can’t the gun-sense lobby take up some of the tactics of the anti-woman’s rights lobby and make it more cumbersome, more expensive to obtain such lethal weapons?
When I raised the issue of why gun manufacturers can’t see their own self-interest in producing smart guns – that can only be used by their registered owner – Congressman Israel noted “We actually thought about that,” Congressman Israel told me. “The biggest purchaser of guns from manufacturers is the federal government. We can set standards by requiring it in the specs.”
But in the likelihood that this Congress would never impose anything on private companies, why can’t the President, by executive order, require guns purchased for the federal government be smart guns, just as the president has mandated a minimum wage and paid family leave for government contractors? Such standards from a big customer have the ability to transform industries – just as California’s Clean Air standards of automobiles transformed the auto industry.
Similarly, every police department in the country could set a standard requiring smart gun technology, which would go a long way to stopping the epidemic of children being shot dead by other children.
Maybe that toddler in Chicago would have been alive if his 6 year old brother hadn’t been able to fire his father’s gun while playing cops and robbers. Indeed, hardly a week goes by where a toddler isn’t the shooter or the victim.
“The Chicago shooting is the latest in a seemingly incessant string of American kids being killed by guns, often shot by other kids. This summer, another toddler was fatally shot by her 7-year-old brother in Washington. Earlier this month, an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee was charged with first-degree murder after shooting his 8-year-old neighbor with a shotgun after an argument over puppies.”
Parents should be prosecuted when their guns are used by their children. (Instead, Florida has a law that prevents pediatricians from discussing safe storage of guns in a home.)
Also, President Obama could sign an executive order closing a loophole that allows many gun sellers to avoid licensing (and therefore the obligation to perform background checks) by requiring any dealers who exceed a certain number of firearms sales a year to obtain a federal license and perform background checks.
What is more, the progressive organization Credo says that there is a way around the National Rifle Association’s grip on Congress that so far has blocked any gun control bill from getting a vote. “Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi can use a parliamentary tactic called a ‘discharge petition’ to force a vote on a gun control package, even if pro-NRA politicians in the House refuse to act,” writes Monique Teal of Daily Kos. That means that Jon Boehner wouldn’t even have to lose face and still do the right thing.
“Even if we don’t win an up-or-down vote, we can use a discharge petition to force a vote in the House and force members of Congress to pick a side. They can either stand with the American people who are ready to take action to reduce gun violence in America or they can stand with the NRA.” (You can sign a petition)
If this tool is available and Democrats don’t use it, it shows that they, for all this new-found bluster, are not really serious about the most significant public health policy this nation faces, either, and that it is only for the cameras in a district so solidly in favor of sensible gun regulation.
There are signs that people are actually rising up: in California, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome is pushing for a “direct democracy” referendum that would require background checks in order to purchase ammunition.
And parents can let college campuses (and states) know they are opposed to allowing guns on campuses by demanding to know the college’s (and the state’s) policy, and refusing to allow their child to apply to those campuses.
Meanwhile, just this week, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld NY SAFE Act.
“Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld what we have long known to be true – that the core provisions of the NY SAFE Act do not violate the Second Amendment. Today, common sense prevailed.
“When we passed the SAFE Act, just days after the tragedies in Newtown and Webster, New York proved to the nation that it is possible to enact sensible gun control that coexists with the Second Amendment. We showed that it can be done with bi-partisan support from both urban and rural communities. And we took a fundamental step forward to help end the stream of senseless killings by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.
“This case validates a simple, fundamental truth about gun control: that it is possible to have strong laws that keep our communities safe, while at the same time respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. New York has set the example – and it’s far past time for Washington to follow suit and pass a sensible national gun control policy.”
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