Viewpoint: Human costs of gun violence

by Peter Sly


Late last month, the House of Representatives passed a universal national background check bill. Like others, I am disappointed that Jared Golden was one of only two House Democrats to vote against it. Because gun violence shows no signs of abating, the gun issue is likely to persist as a stubborn, often partisan divide in the country and for our congressman.

There are several other approaches to the national gun violence epidemic that should be considered, and I hope that Representative Golden, along with Senators Collins and King, will take leadership positions to find realistic and common sense solutions. In addition to universal background check legislation, those include full enforcement of existing law; a “red flag” enforcement tool against threats of imminent violence; limits on high capacity gun magazines and collection of data to ensure we are doing our best to curtail the epidemic of gun violence.

That deluge of gun violence shows no signs of abating. Every year, about 10,000 families face the trauma of gun homicides; about 20,000 face the trauma of gun suicides. When the two combine — when a suicidal person decides to take someone else along — the results are horrific. Maine is not immune from such tragedies or a gun massacre at a school, church or community event.

At the same time, individual hunting is an essential wildlife management tool in rural Maine. With more than 300 million guns in circulation, we need to figure out common sense approaches. Rep. Golden has noted that Maine is not Chicago, Washington or New York, but interstate commerce in guns is so widespread that the most effective steps must first be taken on a national level.

There is widespread consensus that existing laws should be enforced, as Rep. Golden has noted. Unfortunately, the federal enforcement agency (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or ATF) has been hamstrung by language tucked away in an annual omnibus government funding bill that receives only limited public airing.

Enforcement is undermined because the annual budgets (1) underfund the ATF; (2) limit the ability of the ATF and FBI to cooperate with state and local law enforcement; (3) minimize federal research and data on gun violence and (4) curtail computerized central recordkeeping.

This year, the House may well lift at least some of these constraints. The ATF funding bill will then come before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on which Sen. Collins sits. She is well positioned to remove these enforcement limitations. Sens. King and Collins have taken leadership in strengthening federal laws against interstate gun trafficking and straw purchases.

Now that the House has acted, a federal background check bill may even squeak through the Senate.

In 2013, Sen. Collins supported an unsuccessful federal bill on background checks. Most Mainers can support background check legislation, including many hunters, provided the legislation does not impinge on historic hunting practices and allows limited transfers among immediate family members.

The Senate will soon consider S. 42 (authored by Murphy, D-Conn.) on background checks. Sens. Collins and King have not yet joined as co-sponsors; neither sits on the Judiciary Committee, where S. 42 will first be heard. In addition to Collins, however, at least four other Republican senators are potential supporters of universal background checks, including Sens. Scott and Rubio (Fla.), Gardner (Colo.) and Toomey (Pa.). Shortly after the Parkland school massacre, our President spoke of the need for stronger gun laws.

A more difficult issue is gun suicide. Nationally, there about twice as many annual suicide gun deaths as gun homicides. In Maine, there are nine times as many gun suicide deaths as gun homicide deaths. While legislation can never completely control suicidal behavior, guns are far more “successful” than other means of suicide. (Harvard has a project on this. Google “Means Matter Basics.”)

In addition to requiring safe weapon storage, many states have adopted or are considering (like Maine) a “red flag” law authorizing police or sheriffs to remove guns from a household where a member is found by a court to be a threat to themselves or others. Sens. Collins and King have joined Sen. Rubio in co-sponsoring S.7, which would provide federal incentives for such state “red flag” legislation.

On March 26, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on gun violence, and Chairman Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) has said that the committee may be able to come together on a “red flag” bill. The President has also established a task force on veteran suicides that should address guns as a means of suicide.

Rapid fire weapons of war should never be on our streets. Sen. King has co-sponsored the “Keep Americans Safe” (S. 447, Menendez-N.J.) that would limit large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. This bill has also been introduced in the House (HR. 1186, Deutch, D-Fla.).

All of these steps are necessary, but not sufficient. As the gun violence epidemic continues to spread, more comprehensive solutions are needed. Our legislators should consider the longer-term solutions of national handgun licensing, liability for negligent gun sales and the widespread distribution of American weapons throughout the world.

Our elected public leaders should not only follow their constituents, but also educate them about reasonable solutions to a mushrooming horror. We will continue to ask that Rep. Golden be a “straight shooter,” even on such tough issues. Because of his military experience with weapons of war, he is well positioned to speak to us all about the human costs of gun violence.

Brooklin attorney Peter Sly is proud of his 1959 merit badge in marksmanship and gun safety. His extended family includes those who continue to suffer from the traumas of gun suicides more than 50 years ago.

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