WASHINGTON — Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee debated Tuesday how to treat gun violence as a public health crisis, hoping to build on last year’s federal gun safety legislation.
“Across the country, gun violence is a public health epidemic,” Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, the committee’s chairman, said in opening remarks.
Senate Republicans opposed designating gun violence as a public health crisis and argued that approach would violate the Second Amendment and that the focus should be on mental health.
“The fact is that a firearm in the hands of a law-abiding citizen is not a threat to public safety,” said the top Republican on the committee, Sen. John Cornyn from Texas, said.
Durbin said the Democratic witnesses — from doctors to public health experts — will help lawmakers decide how to expand the most comprehensive federal gun safety legislation Congress has passed in nearly 30 years, known as the Bipartisan safer communities.
Any additional gun safety legislation will be an uphill battle, as Republicans control the House of Representatives, and although Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate, they would still need to pass a 60-vote threshold.
The bipartisan safety act came after 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 blacks were killed in an attack by white racists at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. There have been several high-profile mass shootings this year, including a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, where three children and three teachers were killed, and another in Lewiston, Maine, where 18 people were killed and 13 others were injured.
A year of mass shootings
Durbin said Congress needs to step in because the U.S. is unique in its gun violence.
There have been 619 mass shootings this year alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that tracks gun violence in the US. Firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
One of the witnesses tapped by Democrats, Megan L. Raney, who is dean of the Yale School of Public Health, said she has a front-row seat to gun violence.
“We are becoming a nation of traumatized survivors,” she said.
Raney said that in order for the U.S. to treat gun violence as a public health epidemic, the first step is to first collect data on gun violence. She said that through the data, researchers will be able to find risks and predictors and then understand what kind of programs can change those patterns, such as violence prevention programs.
She then said the next step would be scaling up those projects that are working and implementing those practices in communities with high rates of gun violence.
Cornyn argued that gun violence and mass shootings are linked to mental health and asked Raney how often that is.
Raney said studies show that people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, adding that “mental illness is deeply associated with firearm suicide, which is the leading type of firearm death in this country.”
“I think it’s worth noting that when you actually look at mass shooters, the vast majority of them were in identifiable crisis before this mass shooting, but only slightly more than the average American population (that) is identified as suffering from serious mental illness,” Rani said.
Another witness tapped by Democrats, Franklin Causey-Gay, director of the Violence Recovery Program at UChicago Medicine, said hospital-based violence intervention programs are critical to solving the gun violence epidemic.
“Violence recovery specialists use intensive case management in partnership with community violence intervention to ensure comprehensive recovery and reduce re-injury after discharge,” he said.
Cosey-Gay said this type of intervention can involve a multidisciplinary approach involving spiritual care, social work, child life specialists, mental health and hospital clinical staff.
New Mexico Executive Order
Several Republicans such as Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Lee of Utah and Tom Tillis of North Carolina condemned an executive order in September by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declaring gun violence a public health emergency.
A New Mexico source said the Sept. 8 order encouraged local mayors and sheriff’s offices to request “emergency proclamations and enforcement of temporary additional restrictions” under the state’s Riot Control Act.
The governor later revised the order to apply to parks and playgrounds, but that sparked a political storm from Republicans and a wave of lawsuits.
Tillis, who was part of the bipartisan group of senators that worked to pass the federal gun safety legislation, said Lujan Grisham’s decision to declare a public health emergency “sets us even further back from proposing sensible policy.”
Cornyn said it was the latest attack on the Second Amendment.
“A group of our colleagues … and I have written to the Department of Justice to step in and protect the constitutional rights of New Mexicans to carry firearms outside of their homes,” he said. “What a constitutional right is, that’s something … some of our colleagues are constantly overlooking.”