James Johnson, Baltimore County chief of police and chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence testified before the Senate Judiciary Comittee on Jan. 30.
Following the executive branch’s announcement of its gun control recommendations earlier in the month, on Jan. 30 the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the problem of gun violence in the United States.
At the hearing, which lasted about four hours, proponents of gun control squared off against the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment advocates.
Calls for Controls
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in 2011 by a mentally disturbed man, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, started the testimony by pleading with the committee to do something about escalating gun violence.
“It will be hard, but the time is now,” Giffords said. “You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.” Kelly added that while they are both in favor of gun ownership, ineffective laws regarding the background check system must be fixed. He said the shootings in Arizona, which left Giffords disabled and six others dead, could have been prevented with better background checks.
And then as if on cue, while answering a question by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kelly broke the news of the latest mass shooting – this one in the couple’s home state, in Phoenix, Ariz.
Other speakers, including James Johnson, chief of police in Baltimore, and chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, supported the idea of universal background checks – a centerpiece of the recommendations announced by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 16.
Obama has signed an executive order requiring better reporting from federal agencies, which could improve background checks, and he has called on Congress to close the gunshow/private sale loophole as well as pass another assault weapons ban.
NRA Fires Back
But NRA head Wayne LaPierre said his organization opposed closing the gunshow loophole, claiming that background checks are pointless, as are other gun laws, because criminals and the mentally ill don’t abide by them.
LaPierre called on lawmakers to be “honest about what works and what does not work” and said that “fatal firearm accidents are at their lowest levels in 100 years.” He said he believes the answer to decreasing gun violence is to strengthen school security, safety education efforts, and mental health programs.
Another gun advocate, lawyer Gayle Trotter, who works as a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative organization that promotes the idea of “equity feminism,” argued against an assault weapons ban, saying such guns help women defend their children.
Most reactions to the hearing, at which over 200 people had gathered but no disruptions occurred, were as diametrically opposite as the testimony itself. Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted in response to Trotter’s testimony, “Six bullets in the hands of a mother protecting her twin 9-year-olds may not be enough.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy tweeted his support for Chief Johnson’s background check argument: “Chief Johnson is right that improving the background check system is important in thwarting deadly domestic violence,” he said.
But one criminal law professor who weighed in on his blog, Crime, Law and Justice, pleaded for more information: “In a highly polarized political environment, hot button issues like gun control generate lots of heat, but little light,” writes Professor Ray Kessler of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.
Kessler claims it will take more money and more research to find out whether gun controls actually work, adding that “the NRA is not the issue,” nor is “the emotional propaganda put out by both sides.”
“Although I have great admiration and sympathy for Ms. Giffords, trotting her out to become the emotional propaganda poster girl for gun control is the kind of thing that needs to be avoided,” says Kessler. “Emotion should be minimized for rational policy-making.”