Last week, President Barack Obama unveiled an eagerly anticipated set of proposals to end gun violence collected by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s taskforce. This comes at a critical juncture in the debate over violence that has raged in our country in the past few years.
On one side of the spectrum, governors around the nation are taking steps in their own legislatures to find state-based solutions to stem the rising tide of violence, with New York leading the pack this week, putting in place the nation’s strictest gun control laws. Democrats in the House have also established their own gun violence working group, led by my California colleague Rep. Mike Thompson. On the other, the National Rifle Association has dug in its heels against any change to the status quo, even introducing an ill-timed and insensitive target-practice mobile game for children ages 4 and up.
In the midst of this, the president is setting the tone on what kind of nation we want to be in the future: one that honors the memories of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from gun violence in the past decade. These victims and their families deserve much more than what’s been given them by our nation’s leaders. That is why it is critical that the president presented a comprehensive uniform vision rather than focusing only on small reachable goals. State-based and incremental federal solutions are a good start in addressing this tragic problem, but without a true federal framework addressing the inherent causes of violence in our country, problems will still exist. Here’s why.
Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the country yet was still unable to prevent the tragedy in Newtown. The shooter had his mother’s legally purchased gun and a history of warning signs. This is why it is critical that every American has coverage for mental and addictive disorders on par with coverage for other medical conditions. In a recent national survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, Americans overwhelmingly — 93 percent — agreed that mental health and addiction treatment services should be covered and included in any basic private health care plan.
Throughout my career in Congress, I have worked tirelessly on the issue of mental health parity, and I am proud to have played a part in ensuring that one of the 10 essential health benefits in the Affordable Care Act is mental health/addiction treatment. Yet, the kind basic kind of coverage described here is impossible to attain without the power of the federal government behind it.
Part of the need for a comprehensive solution also comes from the fact that guns can be transported across state lines. Determined criminals can still retreat to areas of the country that have more lax laws. Similarly, gun trafficking laws have a higher burden of proof for conviction than any other comparable laws on the books. Rather than criminalizing the sale of guns to anyone who cannot pass a background check, current laws require prosecutors to prove that the seller knew they were selling to someone who could not pass a background check — something nearly impossible to prove.
These policy prescriptions require a federal uniform set of standards which respect the right to bear arms as codified by the Second Amendment but also recognize, as the Supreme Court did recently in District of Columbia v. Heller, that this right is “not unlimited.” This means Republicans, Democrats and independents need to have a real national conversation towards a comprehensive solution. It isn’t the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. Difficult decisions about banning high-capacity magazine ammunition and military-style weapons such as assault rifles, made only for killing other humans in war, will have to be made.
As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, the former chair of the Committee on Public Safety in the California Assembly, and a former county supervisor in Santa Clara County, I’ve been on the front line of these issues for decades. There is broad national support for these measures: A CNN poll found that 62 percent of people favor “a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47.” A similar majority of Americans support tougher background checks and better enforcement of existing laws — through increased funding for entities like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — as part of the solution.
Finally, beyond just looking at weapons and mental health, we have to look at the societal causes of violence. We must answer the question as to why our country leads the Western World in violence and gun-related deaths. The 2012 Peace Index, a yearly study done by the Institute for Economics and Peace on the cost of violence across the world, found that the least violent states in our nation had some of the highest rates of health coverage, high school graduation, educational opportunity and perceived access to basic services, as well as among the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, income inequality, poverty and infant mortality. Herein lays the long-term answer.
Neither states nor incremental federal laws can provide solutions to these problems; they must be created comprehensively with a broad vision for the future, a vision that only our president can provide and lead on. The coming weeks will be instrumental in turning back the tide of violence in our country, and I look forward to the president’s leadership.
Rep. Michael M. Honda is a Democrat representing the 17th District of California, which includes Silicon Valley, and serves as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.