The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 19, 2013

Our View: Citizens, not lobbyists, must answer on guns

— On the same day President Obama was proposing a package of gun-control measures, Democratic Sen. Al Franken stated his support for limiting high-capacity ammunition clips and expanding background checks. But he omitted any reference to a ban on military-style weapons. When a reporter asked a Franken spokesman what gun restrictions the senator might support, the aide said "I guess I don't have an answer for you." Franken, who faces re-election in 2014, later said he wants to see the specifics in any legislation but supports a ban "on principle."

And there's the rub on how any of these initiatives will fare going forward. On some issues, Americans are somewhat in agreement. Even the president of the National Rifle Association on Thursday said the group was generally supportive of strong background checks on firearm purchases. A Pew Research survey found the majority of people -- gun owners and non-gun-owners -- favored such checks including insuring that people with mental illness cannot purchase weapons. And there is some support for putting more law enforcement in our schools.

But overall, we are a divided nation with roughly half believing in more controls on gun ownership with the other half wanting greater protection on gun ownership.

In determining how we should advance we found little concern -- and some encouragement -- in the 23 executive orders issued by the president. In looking at the orders, most addressed measures already in place such as improving incentives for states to share information on background checks, or to "clarify" some issues such as telling doctors there is nothing in the Affordable Care Act that prohibits them from asking their patients about guns in their homes nor does federal law prevent them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement.

 The encouraging signs were those that addressed mental health issues. The order called for finalizing regulations "clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements with the ACA exchanges and committing to finalizing parity regulations." Those regulations have been long ignored.

Another directive sought a national dialogue led by the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Education on mental health. If our best effort on mental health is making it easier to report the mentally ill to law enforcement, then we have failed. We need to address the root of such violence.

Some controversial aspects of the executive order include directing "the Centers for Disease Control to research causes and prevention of gun violence." Critics worry this could be a gun-control agenda but we see much to be gained by scientific data collection and distribution if it is not tied to policy statements. And there are some orders that are redundant (a safe and responsible gun ownership campaign already exists within many shooting and hunting organizations) and reviewing safety standards for gun locks and gun safes which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has already done.

And then there are those that are just unclear, such as providing "incentives for schools to hire school resource officers" without defining what constitutes a "resource officer." Is it a counselor, a security officer or psychologist -- or none of the above?

Sadly what was omitted in the directives is any study or review on the effects of violent movies or computer games that may be contributing to the violent nature of our young society. This has been cited by many but is a woefully understudied aspect in the debate.

The challenge has been thrown down by the president to our legislators to develop the proper measures needed to curb of gun violence. There are many that will argue banning certain weapons or ammunition is merely punishing those who had nothing to do with gun violence while ignoring measures that clearly prevent criminal actions.

And on the flip side, there are credible arguments that restrictions on certain weapons is no more onerous on the Second Amendment than preventing people from falsely shouting "Fire!" in crowded theater impinges on the First Amendment. We just need to define more carefully what those acceptable restrictions are in today's society.

As to those who believe the general populace needs to be just as well armed as the military or law enforcement in case of a needed insurrection -- if this is truly what you believe then we have a far greater problem. We do not believe our servicemen and women and law enforcement officers are any less lovers or freedom than ourselves. And such arguments are not worthy of debate.

But debate we must, for in our representative form of government, the U.S. Senate should begin this debate using the directives of those they represent to fashion such laws that make up the kind of society in which we want to live. Citizens should add their voice to this debate. It's not an easy one and will require the Senate to listen to reasonable, rationale citizens -- not lobbyists -- to fashion an acceptable answer.

 

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