Politicians who don’t support gun control legislation such as universal background checks are grossly negligent because that legislation would reduce gun violence throughout the country, said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Van Hollen visited The Capital on Friday to discuss gun violence after a call to action from the newspaper’s editorial board. An editorial after the June 28th shooting asked local and federal lawmakers to come up with solutions to make Annapolis the last mass shooting.
Of course it wasn’t. On Wednesday five people were killed in Bakersfield, California, when a domestic dispute escalated to violence. The gunman died as well.
Van Hollen said legislation such as universal background checks, reducing access to semi-automatic assault weapons and increasing availability of mental health services would reduce — but not eliminate — gun violence.
He pointed to Maryland’s permit laws that require homeowners have a permit before purchasing a hand gun. He also advocated for expanding Maryland’s red flag laws, which allow family members, law enforcement and others to seek a court order to temporarily prohibit access to firearms when people show red flags that they are a danger to themselves or others.
An expansion of that law could include petitions when a person has a temporary restraining order, broadening who could ask the court to intervene.
What follows are comments from Van Hollen’s visit. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Thank you for coming in today. Can you talk about how federal lawmakers could reduce mass shootings?
There is no one answer. The people who don't want to do anything always say this particular proposal isn’t going to stop all gun violence. And that’s true. There is not one thing that by itself is going to end gun violence. But that is not an excuse for doing nothing. If you do a lot of things together, you can save lives.
We have seen it. We have seen in the state of Maryland the permit to purchase law has saved lives.
But Maryland is not an island. That is why it is essential we pass national legislation. I’ve introduced legislation to encourage other states adopt permit to purchase requirements. I also strongly support legislation for universal background checks. It is absolutely nuts that in some states you go to the gun shop and go through a background check, but if you go to the gun show you don’t. And I do believe we should ban semi-automatic assault weapons nationally.
There are other things we can do such as limiting the size of magazines. If you have a mass shooting, you can limit the number of people killed. If you do a lot things together, we can address the violence. With respect for school shootings, more security at schools and other public places.
Not going to ban all guns. The intent is to have common sense measures that save lives.
But that legislation may not have prevented an incident like The Capital shooting, where the gunman used a shotgun.
Just because a proposed law would not stop every situation and every tragedy, doesn’t mean it won’t stop other tragedies. When I was in the the Maryland legislature, I pushed for a law that required guns sold in Maryland have embedded trigger locks. It was in response to an accident when a young boy went to a neighbor’s house and played with a gun and killed himself. I’m open to any other suggestions. In Maryland there are proposals to extend the red flag law. This would allow people who have temporary restraining orders to petition the court under the law to deny access to a gun. In the case of the Capital Gazette, if there was a threat against the Gazette and asked for a temporary restraining, it may also allow the Gazette to go to court and seek ability to deny that person access to a gun.
As for Great Mills, we are looking at our laws with respect to what liability gun owners have. Right now in Maryland you are liable if your gun falls in the hand of someone 16 or younger. One thing Maryland can do is increase that to 18 or under. That doesn’t mean it would end all gun violence.
Why do we see the federal government so slow to react?
The sad reality is we have members of the House and Senate who are more interested in doing the bidding of the gun lobby than protecting their constituents from gun violence. That is why it is really important for voters to make this a priority issue. I can tell you the gun lobby and the NRA, they send out all sorts of alerts so members make this their top voting issue. A small minority of voters who feel very intensely about an issue make this their number one issue. The great majority of people, who support criminal background and mental stability checks, they have lots of issues they care about.
This just needs to be a top priority. It is something I have fought for for years. As a result I have an “F” rating from the NRA. I’m proud of it.
The NRA is blamed in debates about gun control, but we have seen spikes in violence in some metropolitan areas, such as Baltimore, where Democrats are running the show. Why aren’t Democrats able to reduce gun violence there?
There is not one single answer to these tragedies. In the case of Baltimore City, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray, you saw a spike in homicides. When you talk to police and people in the community, there are lots of reasons with respect to what is happening uniquely in Baltimore City. After Maryland passed its permit to purchase law, you are finding a growing share of out-of-state guns used in crimes. If you are someone who intends to do bad things with a gun, you are a lot less likely to show up at Maryland law enforcement agency and go through a background check.
We have seen a reduction in straw purchases from Maryland. (A straw purchase is when someone buys a gun for someone else) You know if you transfer that gun to someone else and it is used in a crime, that is going to come back to you. (This legislation) has resulted in a reduction of homicide in Maryland. That doesn’t mean we haven’t seen spikes for other reasons. We can reduce the access to guns if we do this on a national level.
Violence in America has been on the decline for years, do you think that incidents like mass shootings feel more intense because of social media and the internet?
We have seen an increase, a spike, in mass gun casualties over the last 20 years. My view it is our obligation to do everything we can to prevent senseless deaths by violence of any kind. The fact overall violence has gone down is a good thing. But the fact that thousands of people die every year from gun violence is unacceptable. It is especially unacceptable when there are things we know we can do that will save lives. The great falsehood, lie, put out by those who don’t want to do anything is ‘There is no one thing that will solve the problem.’ Of course that is true. Legislation won’t end gun violence, but it will save lives. My view is it is absolutely gross negligence when you as an elected official, or a body of elected officials, know there is a measure that will save lives without impeding on people’s rights, and you don’t do it. That is the definition of gross negligence. That is what is happening right now.
Are incidents like The Capital shooting just a consequence of the Second Amendment?
There is no doubt the proliferation of lots of guns, as many studies have shown, obviously makes gun use and gun abuse more likely. But the thing we have do to is make sure we allow folks who want to be law-abiding and responsible gun owners, be that. We have a Second Amendment; I respect the Second Amendment. What we need to do is still allow for reasonable rules that reduce the number of people who die from gun violence. Clearly the courts understand you can have a Second Amendment and allow for responsible gun ownership, and at the same time provide reasonable rules and limitations and try to save lives.
Suicide by guns gets lost in the conversation about gun violence. How can the federal government reduce suicide by guns?
The number of suicides by guns are incredibly alarming. A lot of the measures I’ve talked about, especially those that relate to proper storage of guns, can help save lives. It is important for parents who have guns to store them safely. Obviously we want to do that so someone in the household doesn’t commit a violent crime to someone else. But it is also to prevent someone from getting that gun and dying by suicide. Obviously there are other ways people can die by suicide, but easy access to guns is a contributor to suicide. If the gun wasn’t easily accessible, maybe the moment passes, and it saves a life. If someone goes out and legally buys a gun and stores a gun, then dies by suicide, the focus in that case needs to be on the mental health services that we are making available to people. We have to take it on at the local, state and federal levels. We need to make sure people have access to mental health services.
You talk about mental health services, after mass shootings there is always a call for mental health services. How do you balance advocating for mental health services without stigmatizing the people who have these issues?
First of all we need to have more mental health services available. We made significant progress in requiring insurance companies cover mental health. But we are still falling short in terms of easy access and more mental health clinics. People are often waiting in lines for mental health services. Just because someone has mental health issues, they aren’t likely to pick up a gun and shoot somebody. If there is somebody who poses a threat to the community, we have a system that can identify those individuals, that is what the red flags are about. We do need to make it really clear that someone who has mental health issues does not meant they are a threat in any way to the community.