The Times West Virginian

January 17, 2013

America needs good discussion, not political battle, about gun violence

Times West Virginian

— America needs a good discussion, not seemingly inevitable political posturing.

The issue is gun violence, and the catalyst is the school shootings in December that led to the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama urged Congress to require background checks for all gun sales and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Most of the measures, as The Associated Press reported, are opposed by the National Rifle Association and face a doubtful future in a divided Congress where Republicans control the House.

Obama also signed 23 executive actions, including orders to make more federal data available for background checks and end a freeze on government research on gun violence. Other steps Obama took include ordering tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks, requiring federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations, and ordering a review of safety standards for gun locks and gun safes.

The president’s proposals also include a $150 million request to Congress that would allow schools to hire 1,000 new police officers, counselors and psychologists. The White House plan also includes legislative and executive action to increase mental health services, including boosting funding for training aimed at getting young people into treatment more quickly.

Pro-gun forces, the AP reported, have long suggested that violent images in video games and entertainment are more to blame for mass shootings than the availability of guns. Obama’s proposal calls on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research links between violent images and gun attacks.   

“The president today announced a strong, comprehensive plan to protect our citizens from gun violence,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement released Wednesday. “In West Virginia, we have a proud tradition of hunting and understand the importance of the Second Amendment. We can protect those traditions and rights as we look at ways to prevent senseless acts of violence.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted that “I am disappointed that the president did not recommend the creation of the national commission on mass violence that I have proposed. A national commission can build the consensus we need for real action backed not only by gun-control advocates, mental health experts and entertainment industry executives but also by law-abiding gun owners who fully understand the history and heritage of firearms in America. Violence destroys the dignity, hopes and lives of millions of Americans, and we have a unique opportunity to stop this epidemic – but only if we can put politics aside and have an honest and effective conversation about what to do about our culture of mass violence.”

A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows just how difficult building consensus on the gun issue will be.

Some 58 percent favor strengthening gun laws in the United States. Just 5 percent felt such laws should be loosened, while 35 percent said they should be left unchanged.

Specifically, majorities in the new poll favored a nationwide ban on military-style, rapid-fire guns (55 percent) and limits on the amount and type of gun violence that can be portrayed in video games, movies or on television (54 percent). About half (51 percent) of those surveyed back a ban on the sale of magazines holding 10 or more bullets.

A lopsided 84 percent of adults would like to see the establishment of a federal standard for background checks for people buying guns at gun shows. At the same time 51 percent said that they believed laws limiting gun ownership infringe on the public’s Second Amendment right to possess and carry firearms. Among Republicans, 75 percent cited such infringement.

Most Democrats (76 percent) and independents (60 percent) back stricter gun laws, while a majority of Republicans (53 percent) want gun laws left alone.

Obama conceded that “the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.”

We need a national conversation where real, workable ideas are presented, and we understand that law-abiding people indeed have a right to have guns and confront the enormous difficulty of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t legally have them.

In the best of circumstances, building consensus will be a monumental challenge. In an all-out political confrontation, it will be virtually impossible.