For once, Rhode Island politicians have a chance at being part of the solution. Even a small change on gun violence would resonate with voters.
As recently as the 2012 election campaigns, the issue of gun control had fallen off the political shelf. A Republican Party dominated by the states of the sunbelt and the Old Confederacy feverishly defended the rights of the gun lobby. Rueful Democrats, especially those in Red states, bowed cravenly to the gun constituency that was universally cited as the club that doomed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential aspirations.
Neither President Obama nor his liberal allies said much of anything about guns during their campaigns. Then, of course, came the unspeakable horror of Dec. 14 and the massacre of 20 school children and seven adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Suddenly the American romance with guns was back on the nation’s agenda. Given the strength of the National Rifle Association and the passion of a small segment of gun owners, it’s easy to be cynical about any chance for achievable change. After every recent burst of gun carnage, from the Virginia Tech campus and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to the movie theater murders in Aurora, Colorado, there are cries for gun control. But nothing has resonated with middle America as much as the random murders of Newtown’s innocent children in their classrooms, a place most parents view as the safest of venues.
President Obama has outlined a new regime of gun regulation that strikes many as reasonable and achievable. These proposals include stronger background checks and a ban on assault weapons and ammunition clips carrying more than 10 rounds, as well as beefing up mental health efforts. The president’s plan has received a chorus of cheers from Rhode Island’s all-Democratic Washington delegation as well as political figures closer to home, including Gov. Lincoln Chafee , House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. And does anyone in Congress endure the daily pain and life disruption of gun violence more than our own Jim Langevin, who is in a wheelchair because of a teenage gun accident that severed his spine?
This is the easy part for Rhode Island politicians. Our small, urban state has never had the frontier infatuation with guns that is such a cultural trope in southern and western states.
Ocean State politicians who support strict gun controls have never suffered at the polls. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will recall that then-senator John Chafee in the 1990s called for an end to the sale and manufacture of hand guns of the Saturday Night Special variety, yet he never lost a Senate election. Try that stance in Texas or North Carolina.
But Rhode Island must grow out of its cocoon of New England sanctimony and grow up to the reality that our state is failing when it comes to preventing gun violence. This sad truth was exposed recently by Kristin Gourlay, our colleague here at Rhode Island Public Radio. Her report showed that Rhode Island is not contributing to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known by its acronym, NICS.
Federal law says you can’t buy a gun if you’ve been committed to a mental institution, ruled mentally incompetent by a court or addicted to illegal drugs. Rhode Island law echoes this. The way this is supposed to work is that states and federal agencies send this data to the NICS federal database, an electronic library that has been around since 1998.
But Rhode Island doesn’t participate in this database, according to Col. Steven O’Donnell, head of the state police. So our law enforcement authorities don’t really know what kind of people are purchasing guns. By the way, there's no state registry of gun owners.
There are many reason for this failure, many of them ensnarled in the legal and bureaucratic morass that too often renders government ineffective. Obama’s new proposal would invest $20 million to help states share the criminal and mental health records.
If Gov. Chafee and lawmakers are serious about taking a concrete step towards stopping gun violence, fixing this system would be a good place to start. And a lot more productive than pointing the finger at gun-toting Texans.
Scott MacKay’s commentary runs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and at 5:45 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org
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