Thursday December 20, 2012

We applaud President Obama's vow on Wednesday to send Congress new policy proposals by January to reduce gun violence.

In the wake the mass murder on Dec. 14 of 20 elementary school students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., our apparent acceptance of easy access to military-style guns and large ammunition clips for them has undergone the harshest questioning in decades.

After a first term in which his only legislative action on guns was to allow private citizens to carry them in national parks and on Amtrak trains, the president called on Congress yesterday to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The new ban, being prepared by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would not be retroactive but only limit future sales and manufacturing. Two other measures the president called on Congress to adopt would close the gun show "loophole," which allows people to buy guns from private dealers at such places as gun shows and flea markets without background checks; the third is to limit high-capacity ammunition clips. These are common-sense proposals which have been judged constitutional and would not take out of circulation any of the 270 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. -- about 9 for every 10 Americans.

"The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing," Obama said, according to the Associated Press. "The fact that we can't prevent every act of violence doesn't mean we can't steadily reduce the violence."

Even a majority of NRA members apparently support background checks, according to at least one poll. A poll of 945 gun owners -- half of whom were current or former members of the NRA -- conducted this May by Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed that 74 percent of current and former NRA members and 87 percent of other gun owners supported criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun, according to Reuters. As some have noted, this time there seems to be momentum for common-sense gun laws, laws that respect the rights of gun owners in rural states such as Vermont. In Congress, for instance, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a pro-gun Democrat and NRA member, has come out for such reasonable legislation, as have other pro-gun senators such as Mark Warner, D-Va., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Some Congressional Republicans have expressed openness also, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, along with U.S. Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia, and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced creation of a task force led by Vice President Joseph Biden. The departments of Justice, Education, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, along with other groups and legislators will be part of this task force. In addition to gun laws, part of this group's charge is to consider ways to improve mental health and to promote a less violent culture. We certainly support such inquiries, with some cautions. One is that steps to reduce easy access to rapid-firing combat weapons be an immediate priority and not be exchanged for or bogged down by issues such as violent video games or improvements in mental health services.

For one thing, according to The Washington Post's "World Views" blog, a 10-country study has shown there's little or no link between video games and gun murders. Do we in the U.S. too often use violence as a problem-solving tool? Yes, but the issue is much more complicated than just what comes out of Hollywood.

As for improved mental health services, "We are going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to guns," Mr. Obama said. In his response to the shootings, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also listed expansion and improvement of mental health services in his list of things to be done in reaction to the shootings.

We know Sen. Sanders means it. But improving mental health services means spending money. This means that when conservatives in Congress, particularly members in the House tea party caucus, say the real problem relates to mental health and not access to combat-style guns, it's clearly a diversion. They are not about to vote for increases in spending on mental health services -- and many of them have already made it clear they won't vote for commonsense restrictions on guns.

And here lies the real challenge in moving forward -- the GOP majority in the House of Representatives -- particularly the tea party caucus. Will they block real progress here as they have so far in the effort to safely get the nation around the fiscal cliff? If they successfully block meaningful change in federal law on access to rapid-firing combat-style weapons, the only recourse will be the response of outraged voters at the polls in the 2014 national election.