Gun legislation dies, but local legislators bring back part of bill

January 21, 2014

On Jan. 10, the parents of a young woman who died in the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting came to Delaware to urge support for House Bill 88.

The bill would have required mental health professionals to notify law enforcement if they considered a patient potentially dangerous. After zipping through the House 40-1 last year, the bill appeared to be a slam dunk to pass the state Senate.  Instead, it lost badly, 13-6, after drawing intense opposition from gun rights advocates.

Last week, the Senate had one more chance to reconsider the bill. It died without even generating enough support to bring it up for debate.

Attorney General Beau Biden had backed the bill but didn’t show up at Legislative Hall, prompting a legitimate comment in the News Journal from Senate Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford: If the bill is so important, Biden should have been at Legislative Hall to rally support.

As it was, it becomes another question mark for Biden, who was treated in August for an unknown illness at a leading cancer center in Houston. Since then, his only public comment has been that he’s been given a clean bill of health. He has declined to answer questions.

It’s possible that Biden was too busy to come to Dover or that he knew the bill was a sure loser and not worth the time and effort. But that’s the problem. We don’t know, and the lack of information from Biden spurs speculation.

But proponents of the bill shouldn’t lose heart. Delaware’s General Assembly was much more successful getting legislation passed, including expanded background checks and the reporting of stolen firearms, than the United States Congress.

And two local legislators, Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, have announced they are sponsoring a bill that would bring back a portion of HB 88.

This new bill, they said, would prohibit two groups of people from possessing firearms: those found not guilty of a violent crime by reason of insanity and those found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

The new bill would not require mental health professionals to report patients they deemed dangerous to the police.

It wouldn’t be everything that gun safety advocates wanted, but it’s better than nothing, and they would be wise to settle for this one bill.

That’s because gun safety efforts are often a gift to the firearms industry and their lobbyists. For gun manufacturers, major shootings are good business. Sales spike, and the NRA collects millions of dollars from people fearful for their Second Amendment rights.

Any additional gun safety legislation is unlikely unless there is a sea change in public opinion.

But such change is possible. Just a few years ago, gay marriage was a wedge issue used against Democrats. Now, it’s accepted by most of the population.

Not long ago, the legalization of marijuana would have been considered a pipe dream. Now, Colorado has passed such a law, and other states are also considering making the change.

(I have a sneaking suspicion the issue will eventually come before the General Assembly. The reason: money. Delaware casinos just aren’t the cash cows they used to be. Legalizing pot, if there aren’t major problems in Colorado and other states, would provide a convenient revenue source.)

Perhaps most striking, a few years ago anyone who questioned the Patriot Act was considered a friend to terrorists. Now many Americans from both the right and left are united in their fear of the NSA and its extraordinary power and abilities to collect information about U.S. citizens.

So change is possible, even on seemingly intractable issues. But change won’t come from shaming gun rights advocates. If the carnage at Newtown didn’t persuade people, nothing will.

Gun safety supporters need to take a new approach. Immediately after a mass shooting, gun rights advocates often say that now is not the time to consider new gun legislation. Emotions are too raw.

In some respects, I agree. Let’s not let emotions cloud the debate. Instead, let’s look at the facts.

Between 2001 and 2010, 703 children died in accidental shootings in the U.S. During that same period, 7,766 children were injured in accidental shootings.

Let’s consider ways we can bring that number down.

In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, 19,392 people committed suicide using firearms. That’s an astonishing figure and it’s a disgrace we don’t do more to help those people.

(I don’t buy the argument that people will just find another way to kill themselves. Guns are more lethal; 90 percent of suicide attempts using guns result in death. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that, overall, there are 11 non-fatal attempts for every suicide.)

Change in both areas would of course be difficult. But we have made enormous strides in cutting down on smoking and drunk driving. There’s no reason that with goodwill and good information, we can’t reduce the number of gun-related tragedies as well.

CORRECTION: Last week’s column contained a mistake about Claire Snyder-Hall’s position at George Mason University. She served as an associate professor.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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