Major medical groups’ push for tempered gun control gained bipartisan support in Congress last week, as lawmakers outlined the next round of legislation to try to grapple with mass killings with assault weapons.
The latest drive for legislative answers to widespread national gun violence followed shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 people dead.
The federal bipartisan proposal with the most traction through last week is an agreement Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reached with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), giving states grants to enact so-called “red-flag” protection order laws. These allow judges to temporarily take firearms or ammunition from people posing immediate threats.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have such so-called “extreme-risk protection orders” laws in place and legislation is pending in others. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pitched bipartisan legislation to help fund more of these state efforts in 2018 after the Parkland school shooting in his state. He is asking for a committee vote on his bill.
But expanded background checks haven’t been ruled out, even if their path forward is far more unwieldy. Democratic leaders are pushing them hard, and Aug. 8 President Donald Trump phoned Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about major legislation already passed in the House.
“The president gave us his assurances that he would review the bipartisan House-passed legislation and understood our interest in moving as quickly as possible to help save lives,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement after their separate discussions with Trump.
There’s also a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on background checks floating in the upper chamber—a measure that the gun lobby sank when it came up years ago.
And some former GOP opponents of gun control changed their stance last week. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who lives in Dayton, tweeted out his support for “legislation that prevents the sale of military-style weapons to civilians, a magazine limit, and red-flag legislation.”
Both “red-flag” laws and comprehensive background checks were among the reforms urged last week by the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Psychiatric Association and others in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t signaled he’s willing to go there, but he’s told three committee chairs to work on bipartisan legislation. And momentum is clearly on the side of stronger checks on guns, with little heed to Trump’s call to overhaul national mental health laws as part of the overall effort.
The American Hospital Association, meanwhile, “does not have an official position on red flag (legislation) as it relates to community violence,” CEO Rick Pollack said in an emailed statement. “But we have been supportive of giving a voice to the fact that violence is a serious public health problem in America.”
He added that the AHA continues to advocate for increased access to and funding for mental health services. “However, it is a distinct issue and the evidence suggests that people with mental health issues are usually the victims of violence and not the perpetrators.”
Lobbies like the APA and the National Alliance on Mental Illness had immediately disputed Trump’s characterization that gun violence results primarily from mental illness. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not guns,” the president said in his Aug. 5 remarks from the White House, as he asked for proposals to guarantee treatment and in some cases involuntary confinement for people deemed dangerous.
Federal attempts on this front would be tricky, since states set their own policies on how and when to involuntarily commit adults. Historically the federal government hasn’t intervened.
Any attempt to pass national standards on involuntary treatment would hit a reality hurdle, said NAMI’s Andrew Sperling. Statistically there’s a shortage of acute inpatient beds in the U.S., and the days of long-term stays in mental hospitals seem to be over, he added.