John Sarbanes tells The Capital: 'We are not powerless to respond to the scourge of gun violence'

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes recently visited The Capital, where he advocated for universal background checks, ending gun show loop holes and appropriating more federal money to cities like Baltimore and Annapolis.

Sarbanes, D-Baltimore County, represents the 3rd Congressional District in Maryland. He is running for re-election and is facing Republican Charles Anthony in the Nov. 6 election.

On June 28th, The Capital was attacked by a gunman who blasted through the newsroom’s glass doors with a shotgun. Gerald Fishman, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rob Hiaasen were killed in the attack. The suspected gunman was arrested by police in the newsroom and has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder and other charges.

The Capital’s editorial board called on politicians throughout the state to give their solutions on gun violence. Some submitted columns while others opted for an interview. Some did both.

Sarbanes’ comments from Oct. 1 follow. They have been edited for length and clarity.

What can be done to reduce gun violence?

We know what can be done. The challenge is getting that legislation to the floor. In fact, there are a fair number of proposals. If the Republican leadership would let them come to the floor — even in the current makeup of Congress — they would probably pass because there are Republicans who support it. Universal background checks is the perfect example. That is the threshold measure that would garner some strong bipartisan support. Democrats are solidly behind that. If you look at the polling, over 80 percent of Americans and a majority of gun owners support universal background checks. Responsible gun owners know that it doesn’t undermine the Second Amendment. It is a common sense measure.

As you know, Maryland has been one of the leaders on some of these measure at the state level. We’ve got to close the gun show loophole. If you ask the average person, ‘should there be a giant exception just because the transaction happens to occur at a gun show,’ they say that doesn’t make sense. I support reinstating an assault weapons ban on automatic and some semi-automatic weapons. What were designed as weapons of war are not things civilians should be able to purchase. It is not a hunting rifle. It is designed to kill people and kill people in large numbers.

How do you define assault weapons?

We can quibble over the definition of assault weapons. There are certain weapons, such as a fully automatic weapon that has a high number in the clip or magazine constitutes an assault weapon. As for semi-automatic, you can get into some kind of debate. But this is kind of the playbook from the opponents of any reasonable restrictions. They try to entangle you up on the definition. There are certain things that clearly fall into the assault weapons category. Start there, determine whether you can extend it into other arenas based on the discussion you have.

By the way, a discussion to be had — and this is now wearing my hat as a member of the House Subcommittee on Health — that there is a lot of issues around gun safety we can approach as a public health matter. That data would lead you to common sense measures to put in place. Approaching it as a public health issue would pull it out of this highly charged debate.

I regard it as a very significant development that these red flag laws are being pursued. (These laws allow police to temporarily take guns from individuals after a court awards an extreme risk protective order).

It suggests a level of seriousness on how you remove guns from dangerous individuals. Obviously there are civil liberties at play, so a balance has to be struck. But it has shifted things in a positive direction both in terms of the way the debate operates and the practical tools available to combat these situations. And then there is the broader issue of how we address mental health issues in this country. That is a tricky thing to get our arms around. I for one react to the school shootings not by thinking about putting firearms in the hands of school personnel. You have a captive audience there. We ought to boost up school-based health clinics and the mental health and counseling component of that.

One of the things the police chief of the county was concerned about was space for weapons they take. The chief called it an unfunded mandate. How do you find the funding for these proposals?

That is an appropriate place for federal dollars to flow. Into clinics, counseling, into creating more resources for these local law enforcement agencies associated with the red flag response. If you put some of these measures into the larger context of a public health response, you can unlock some of these resources. You are expanding what the health care dollar can look like and go to. It is certainly something I have been pushing for hard. If we can get leadership into place at the congressional level — that is pushing hard for that kind of resource — you could get enough bipartisan support to the things you bring to the floor. It could come from national security places. It is just a matter of priorities. The public is certainly in a place to support some of those resources.

It is possible Democrats take the House. What are the members of the caucus saying? Where does gun violence rank as a priority?

It is a high priority. And it is a high priority of the new class of candidates coming in. They have been articulating that in their districts. Even in some of the swing districts where you have strength on the part of the NRA and Second Amendment rights folks, there is not significant resistance to some of the baseline measures we are talking about, such as universal background checks. Democrats are going to look at proposals we believe — had they been brought to the floor by a Republican leadership — would have passed. Another is immigration policy. There have been proposals to reform our immigration laws and policy that we know if Republican leadership brought to the floor would have passed. That leadership has been largely directed by certain special interests.

As for gun violence, it is folks like NRA, gun lobby and gun manufacturers and so forth that have had an influence over the decisions about what provisions to bring forward and what is to be held back. That is part of a larger message of getting the policy making machinery out from under the special interests influence that comes through campaign donations and lobbying. Gun violence debate falls into that category. If we can break free of that, we can get measures onto the floor.

A lot of the public frustration, and my own personal frustration, comes from the sense of powerlessness in the face of these shootings that so many Americans feel. We can’t seem to get one common sense thing done at the national level to show that we have the power to stand up to these interests that have been out there for so long. And so one victory, in the direction of gun safety, would be a huge thing. Let’s show ourselves as a country and people that we are not powerlessness to respond to this scourge of gun violence. Look at what they did in Australia in response to one mass shooting. Not 20. Just one. The country and the public is ready to take the right steps with the right leadership. Let’s go do the things that are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to the polls and gun safety. And come nowhere near threatening the second amendment.

How do you avoid stigmatizing people with mental health issues when linking as a solution to gun violence?

It is like the opioid crisis. You give it a different type of treatment. You lean away from the impulse to criminalize or punish certain behaviors and you treat it more as something else that requires a public health response. What you find when you lean in that direction is the people who have suffered from these situations, they step forward and become a core of building that different frame of mind and addressing the stigmatized issue. We have it within ourselves to begin to change the perception of these issues. To understand that a lot of people who find themselves in these situations are there because they are living lives of real stress and pressure. Young people are moving into a space where they are prepared to talk more openly about these kinds of things. You want to support that.

Why are areas like Baltimore — heavily Democratic — still struggling with gun violence when those Democrats support and sometimes pass gun safety legislation at the local level?

A lot of that has to do with getting hold of the resources. The leadership of Baltimore City is committed to expanding treatment and recovery programs. I know this from working on the school-based health clinics. Baltimore City embraces that. Urban areas have been strapped by the real disinvestment from the federal government over the last few years. There have been some real cutbacks from the support provided. It is not for lack of commitment by the Democratic leadership in some of those jurisdictions. It is about scraping together the resources to make a difference. That is what a Democratic Congress could bring to bear.

The president sends us a budget. The ones he has been sending for the last couple of years have been draconian in their cuts to all kinds of things we care about. Gun violence. The Chesapeake Bay. You name it. We have restored a lot of that. In this area there is more we can do. We hold the purse strings. If members of Congress are going to say with a straight face this is a national crisis — and I’m including now this opioid issue and gun violence — that requires thinking out of the box and bringing significant resources to bear. If we are going to put some real teeth behind that message, that means more dollars flowing.

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