Thursday, April 18, 2013

What the Senate Gun Vote Says About Washington . . . and About Us

Many experts predicted that the unspeakable murder of dozens of children and adults at Sandy Hook elementary school would be a “game-changer” that would cause Congress to enact meaningful controls over firearms.   How wrong they were.  

Yesterday, the United States Senate rejected every single legislative proposal to make it harder for people—including convicted felons-- to obtain and use firearms to inflict harm on themselves and others.    Because of Senate rules requiring 60 votes to get just about anything passed, a minority of U.S. Senators were able to block a bipartisan plan  for universal background checks offered by two Senators with “A” ratings from the NRA, despite the fact that  90%  of the public supports expanded background checks.

 Proposed bans on the future manufacturing and sale of military style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines didn’t even get a majority of Senators to vote for them.  These are the weapons of choice of mass murderers, used to gun down children and adults at Sandy Hook; college students at Virginia Tech; a member of Congress and others standing near her (including the murder of a young child) outside a grocery store in Tucson; movie theater patrons in Aurora, Colorado, and so many more people who have been killed or injured, in so many places, by assault weapons loaded with high capacity magazines.  But banning such weapons and ammunition was too big a political lift for most U.S. Senators.

The background check proposal had a much more modest purpose, closing existing loopholes to keep guns out-of-the hands of convicted felons, persons with domestic violence restraining orders, and violent, mentally-disturbed persons under court order (while exempting most sales among family members), but that was also too much of a lift for politicians cowed by the NRA’s opposition and a passionate but small minority of gun owners who oppose expanded background checks.  Support for background checks among gun owners is about the same as the general public, with 88% of them supporting background checks for all gun owners according to recent polls.

I am deeply disappointed that Senate rules allowed a minority to again block the will of the majority of the Senate and the will of an overwhelming majority of the public.  I am deeply disappointed  by the effectiveness of the NRA’s deceptive, cynical “slippery slope” argument that universal background checks would create a federal registry of gun purchases that later could be used by the government to take legal guns away from law-abiding owners, when such a registry is expressly prohibited by the background check bill as well as by current law barring the FBI from retaining records of persons passing background checks. 

I am also disappointed that organized medicine didn’t do more to support the Senate bill.  ACP did its part: we wrote letters of support for the background check bill and asked our 8,000 plus ACP Advocates Network members to urge their own Senators to vote for it.  The American Academy of Pediatrics did at least as much as we did.  But from what I can tell, most of the other national physician membership organizations and state medical societies sat this one out.  They either didn’t engage at all prior to the Senate vote, or limited their engagement to a letter of support, without backing it up with grass roots lobbying, direct lobbying on Capitol Hill, and the other elements one would associate with a high priority campaign.   In my blog post immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre, I asked “Is the Medical Profession Doing Enough About Gun Violence?”   Regrettably, the answer for much of organized medicine, appears to be no.

But my disappointment over the Senate’s failure on guns pales to that of Gabby Giffords, the member of Congress who was grievously injured in the Tucson shooting.   Read what she said in today’s New York Times:

“Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them.

On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.”

She continues:

“I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like ‘tough vote’ and ‘complicated issue.’ I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done, and until we have changed our laws so we can look parents in the face and say: We are trying to keep your children safe. We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.”

My deep disappointment with the Senate’s failure on guns can’t come close to that expressed by the heartbroken father of his beloved seven year old son murdered in Sandy Hook.  Mr. Barden spoke last night at the White House of his anguish at the loss of his son, his disappointment with the Senate vote, and his determination to press forward:

“We'll return home now, disappointed but not defeated. We return home with the determination that change will happen -- maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We've always known this would be a long road, and we don't have the luxury of turning back. We will keep moving forward and build public support for common-sense solutions in the areas of mental health, school safety, and gun safety.”

(Click on this link to watch his remarks followed by President Obama’s statement).

I know that some readers of this blog argue that background checks and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazine’s won’t work in preventing all or even most firearms injuries and deaths, and that may be true, although the best available studies and simple logic suggest that they would help.

Despite gaping loopholes, the current background check system resulted in some 1.5 million persons with criminal records being turned down when they try to buy guns. Logic tells us that a system that closes the loopholes would keep guns out of the hands of even more convicted felons.   Logic tells us that limiting access to certain guns that are designed to kill as many people as possible would result in fewer people being killed when someone tries to obtain them to inflict harm on us and others.

Some of you may also point out that the issue is more complicated than simply regulating firearms purchases—that mental health, culture, substance and alcohol abuse, and other societal factors also play a role—and with that I would agree.  But the need to examine other factors contributing to  firearms-related injuries and deaths isn’t a valid argument for not doing what we can now to keep guns out of the wrong hands and to limit their killing capacity.

Listen to more of what Gabby Giffords had to say about the Senators who voted against background checks:

“They will try to hide their decision behind grand talk, behind willfully false accounts of what the bill might have done — trust me, I know how politicians talk when they want to distract you — but their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest. I say misplaced, because to preserve their dignity and their legacy, they should have heeded the voices of their constituents. They should have honored the legacy of the thousands of victims of gun violence and their families, who have begged for action, not because it would bring their loved ones back, but so that others might be spared their agony.

The should have, but they didn’t. 

Today’s question: What is your reaction to the Senate’s rejecting of expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines?


OrganDoc said...

A few thoughts on this blog post: It is more proper to say that 90% of those surveyed support background checks. Until all Americans are surveyed we can't say anything about the entire U.S. population without assumptions. Perhaps those that oppose background checks refused to participate in the survey. Also, maybe in some regions that are represented by those Senators that voted against it, a majority have expressed to their Senator that they do not support the background check as described in that amendment. Second, the Senate decided itself to require 60 votes for passage. They could have voted with a simple majority to proceed to debate and then vote and could have passed with a simple majority. However, they opted to skip debate and go straight to voting under the sixty vote threshold. Third, none of the proposed changes will prevent the next Newtown kid. Background checks stop many people from getting guns but we don't know how many then turn around and get them from illegal means. Using "logic" to suggest that passing new laws, when we already have thousands of gun laws in this country, will prevent future events may not be the best method. We have the same flaw in medicine, logically annual mammograms, PSA testing, ovarian cancer screenings, whole body scanning would seem to save lives and make everyone live longer, but with careful research we know that isn't necessarily the case. We seem to be trying to treat two different problems: mass murders by lone gunman - many with mental illness, and inner city gun violence. They have different causes and likely have different solutions. Instead of trying to publicly shame those that disagree, and brow beat us into agreeing something by accusing us of not having sympathy for the families of the Newtown massacre, only hurts the chance of meaningful reforms for either problem. And lastly, "assault weapon" is an ambiguous term that doesn't mean much. A baseball bat, golf clubs, kitchen knife, hammer, fists, rifles, pistols, and antique revolvers can all lead to an arrest for "assault" if they are used outside of their intended purposes. Trying to ban "assault weapons" just isn't feasible and just because a rifle has a couple of extra bells and whistles on it doesn't make it less deadly than other types of weapons used for assault. I wish the ACP would focus on supporting research into the causes of both types of gun violence (and encourage enforcement of current gun laws) prior to pushing laws that we have no evidence will be helpful.

PCP said...

This is quite clearly an example of agenda driven journalism and agenda driven advocacy.
Bias is in human nature. Humans nor organizations of humans are immune to it. Bob, your post apparently representative of ACP's position is clear in its bias, ie one of gun ownership restriction.
The problem with the creeping liberal bias and desensitization is that it undermines the successful underpinnings and distinguishing features of this country. Perhaps these unique factors that unleashed human potential. Perhaps the ones are what differentiate it from its more mentally and otherwise chained european counterparts.
Which then begs the question why do we keep moving toward that system and governance. Perhaps it is the nature of a mature and wealthy society. However what if it is that we have chosen to stunt our progress after two centuries. Then it will mean we have chosen not to lead but to follow.
I have never owned a gun and might never. However I fully support the second amendment. It is a definite check and balance needed in society against a tyranical gov't.
The problem with liberals in the country is that aided by a liberal media, the incremetal creep of soccial direction away from the successful moorings of this nation.
The desensitization of people and the incrementalism of change in a direction of liberal utopia is at the point of lost trust amongst conservatives. Such that a proposal to do background checks on all gun purchases can't be taken at face value. The skepticism is appropriate based on the track record of the federal gov't ever increasing encroach on personal freedoms.
I totally disagree with the notion that we as medical professional have aome responsibility to restrict gun ownership for the greater good.

Harrison said...

When something is wrong fundamentally in our society it can take a long time to correct. Guns are a convenient and effective tool for acts of violence. What is wrong with our society is violence. We use violence to resolve conflicts. The bigger the gun, the better you are able to make your case violently.

Our government will eventually reflect the change our society needs to make.
Yes, it would be nice to see our government lead.
When it is at its best, it does lead.
Lincoln certainly forced it to lead on the 13th amendment.
But our legislative bodies never lead on separate but equal. The Supreme court had to do that. But they did it unanimously. Even justices who felt that Brown vs the Board of Education was not such a good case voted with the majority to make it a unanimous decision.
Can you imagine the Civil Rights movement if the court had voted only 5-4 in favor of the Brown decision? I'm not sure it would have happened.
The court led. The President followed with enforcement that was far less than popular. And then President Johnson, pretty much sacrificing his party's majority control in Southern states pushed the legislature to lead on civil rights.

I don't think the gun debate is by itself the same as the societal fight against slavery and racism. But I think that our society's growth away from being violent and using violence to resolve conflicts is every bit as big as society's growth away from racism. And the gun debate is part of that.

So, the Senate didn't lead. Disappointing, but not surprising. They are small people. They are reflections of society.
President Obama is a leader. But when you are leading in a conflict, not everyone follows. Nothing new about that either.

We will move slowly away from violence.
We will move away from our acceptance of guns.
And those of us who want it, and we are in the majority, will simply have to keep asking for our representatives and government officials to make good decisions. And maybe one day, they will lead.


Jim Webster MD, MACP said...

You are right on target in spite of your critics" comments. I was bitterly disappointed in the cowardice shown by the Senate. Until we go again re background checks assault rifles etc., might I
suggest the following be pushed by the medical profession/ACP: Strategies to change cultural attitudes about gun ownership
Admonitions about gun safety, no matter what your opinion, on gun laws:
1. Unlocked weapons can easily be stolen. For example; hand guns in automobile glove compartments or dresser drawers or long guns in front hall closets are not secure. The best alternative is a locked gun cabinet.
2. Individuals with serious emotional problems that can often lead to impulsive destructive behaviors, and guns under the same roof are a bad combination. For example; persons with alcohol or drug issues or serious depression too often pose a risk to themselves or those that they live with. The weapons can best be locked up in the home of a reliable friend or at the local police station.
3. When restraining orders are issued in contentious life situations, such as serious marital ruptures or neighborhood feuds, public and personal safety is served by the removal of access to guns for all parties until the issues are settled.
4. Conflict resolution seminars as a required component of every middle school curriculum in the U.S. will have the beneficial result of reducing the number armed confrontations, in particular gang/drug related shootings. Parent teacher associations can be crucial in making this change happen.
5. Optimally, information about ongoing, available firearm safety courses could be disseminated at gun stores, gun shows and through community resources such as websites and local print publications, at low cost.
6. Trigger locks save children’s’ lives by preventing accidents, they can easily be placed and removed by adults. They are inexpensive ($ 6) and could be part of every gun sale.

Best wishes,
Jim Webster MD, MACP

TakeOurCountryBack said...

Where is the evidence that any of the proposals will prevent the next disaster? Would the tragedy at Newtown have been prevented with expanded background checks? I think not. Rather, like many inefficient reactionary measures, law-abiding gun owners will pay the price for those who will use them in these senseless acts regardless. I agree with Schmidt Family.

Interesting that the legislature's proposal targeted assault rifles. According to the US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, from 2000-2009, actually handguns were the type of weapon responsible for the greatest number of homicides. Rifles were dwarfed by blunt objects, although they were triple the rate of strangulation. But knives took the lives of nearly 2000 people in 2009; perhaps knife restriction laws are in our future.

No one diasgrees with Dr. Webster's sentiment. Even the NRA, of which I am a card-carrying member, touts personal firearm safety, education and gun locks. Many are simply concerned that the government is over-reaching (again); this time in its effort to control the constitutional right of the people to keep and bear arms.

The College should spend its resources on other issues rather than blindly wading into this one.