The human carnage attributable to gun violence in America is undeniable. Our shared experience with the Virginia Tech shootings, the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre and the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., have most Americans shouting “Enough!” Perhaps the political inertia that has long stalled intelligent legislation to curb gun violence can finally be overcome. Perhaps the political calculus regarding gun safety laws has at last changed from “How can I possibly vote to support such legislation?” to “How can I not support such legislation?”
Since 1994, the conventional wisdom has been that acting to restrict gun rights can put a politician on a fast track to a new career. That’s part of the reason why Congress and the Maryland General Assembly allowed their assault weapons bans to expire in 2004 and 2006, respectively, and why weak gun controls are treated like an untouchable third rail in swing states such as Virginia. After the horror of Newtown, however, many people are asking if progress is again possible.
One should be careful not to underestimate the power of the opposition. It’s true that the National Rifle Association (NRA) poured money into last year’s election only to see President Obama — and many other NRA targets — prevail. But rumors of the NRA’s demise are greatly exaggerated. It remains a potent force, with strong grass-roots organizations across the country and big campaign coffers that it will continue to use in state and federal elections. Calls for leaders to show “political courage” in the face of this strength are not enough. Unless we create a counterweight, gun rights advocates trying to ride out outrage over Newtown may succeed.
We need grass-roots organizers, big-city mayors, police and prosecutors to ally with politically moderate gun owners and groups such as the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence to provide support to officials who want to enact rational gun laws. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Tom Menino continue to show leadership on this issue. Groups such as the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the National District Attorney’s Association could provide a similar voice for prosecutors who understand how rational gun laws and access to gun data could be useful in prosecuting gun criminals locally.
The mere banning of specific weapons or forms of ammunition will not be enough. We must also take a hard look at the relationship between mental-health issues and gun violence. For instance, the only information provided to the Maryland State Police on mental-health matters for those applying for gun ownership is self-reported. That needs to change. What incentive does a person applying for a firearm have to supply this information?
A good first step was taken last week as a task force created by the Maryland General Assembly issued a report on gun violence and mental health. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden is convening the president’s task force on gun violence to propose possible solutions.
We recommend the following:
●Require mental-health-care providers to give to state or local police (whichever serves as the licensing agency for gun permits) the names of any individual receiving mental health services who would pose a danger if granted a gun permit. Mandatory reporting is not novel: Doctors and others are required to report child abuse;
●Establish a secure mental-health gun-restriction database, with criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of the information it contains;
●Indemnify from civil damages any mental-health-care provider who makes a good-faith report to police that a patient places the public at risk;
●Ban armor-piercing bullets and all forms of assault weapons, and limit the magazine capacity of all firearms to a maximum of 10 rounds;
●Address everyday shootings by removing the restrictions Congress has placed on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing its gun database with local law enforcement;
●Close the gun show loophole to the Brady gun law; and
●Increase mandatory penalties for criminals convicted of carrying and using firearms in the commission of a violent crime.
The time for state and federal legislators to act is now. The issues are complex, but we can do better. For real progress to occur, we must address mental health concerns, access to weapons and political issues simultaneously.
John McCarthy is Montgomery County state’s attorney. Glenn F. Ivey, a partner at the law firm Leftwich & Ludaway, was Prince George’s County state’s attorney from 2002 to 2010.