Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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What we can learn from another tragedy

January 16, 2011

Sacramento Bee
By Jackie Speier

See the original piece here.

I am playing dead by the wheel of an airplane on a jungle airstrip. Someone stands over me and empties five bullets from a semiautomatic weapon into the right side of my body. I survive. This is not a dream.

On that fateful day, Nov. 18, 1978, I was one of the few to survive the ambush by armed cult members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. I was an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan who lay near me, dead on the tarmac after these monsters shot him 45 times – the last congressman to be shot and killed in the line of duty. We were investigating conditions at Jonestown after constituents complained their relatives were being held against their will by Jones.

Rep. Ryan was doing his job as was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Jan. 8. This time a troubled young man with a semiautomatic Glock fitted with a 30-magazine clip opened fire, killing six people and wounding 13, including my colleague "Gabby."

In the months after my travail, I spent many hours, even days, trying to make sense about what had happened. In the end I realized that it was simply incomprehensible. I would have to move on – to turn my moniker from victim to survivor and to do something constructive with my life.

I vowed never to take another day for granted, to live every day as fully as possible and to commit my "second" life to public service. Gabby now has a "second" life as well. I hope we can work together to bring some sanity to our nation's gun laws.

In 2004 the federal ban on assault weapons expired under the Bush administration. I ask you, do we need AK-47s to kill elk?

The Constitution provides for the right to bear arms, but I doubt the Founding Fathers had the foresight to consider that one day people with severe emotional problems could easily acquire guns capable of killing 20 or more people in a matter of seconds.

The response in Arizona has been disconcerting. Sales of the $499 Glock special, according to Bloomberg News, have been brisk as people said they rushed to buy the gun before the government banned its sale. This is the same type of gun used in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.

More semiautomatic weapons won't stop violence; they will only increase the likelihood that innocent people will die by gunfire.

Public opinion appears to favor "hands off our gun." In a 2010 Gallup poll only 44 percent of Americans said the laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, matching Gallup's record-low on the question when asked in 2009. The percentage of people favoring stricter laws has been gradually declining over the last 20 years with a pinnacle of 78 percent for tougher gun controls in 1990.

Substantially more Americans support a ban on assault weapons and semiautomatic firearms, like the one used in the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. In a 2009 Times/CBS News poll, 54 percent of Americans, including about half of respondents who have a gun in their home, said they favored a nationwide assault weapons ban.

Even if we do not ban these weapons, we need to enforce existing laws and to close loopholes. Under current federal law, it is illegal for anyone who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution" to purchase a firearm (the Tucson shooter wasn't in this category). Not until 1993, when the Brady Law was signed, were buyers' backgrounds checked and verified.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, out of the 78 million background checks conducted between 1998 and 2007, only 2,608 denials were based on mental health disqualification. The low rate of denial might be comforting if the information in the background system was complete and accurate, but it's not. In 2002, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System contained only 90,000 records of those disqualified under the mental health provision of the law.

Nearly all of those records came from institutionalized veterans. According to the Government Accountability Office, at least 2.6 million people should have been included in the system.

Things weren't much better by 2006: 234,628 disqualifying mental health records were in the system. In short, if the GAO's estimate is still correct, at least 91 percent of the seriously mentally ill still won't be stopped by a gun-buyer background check if they so choose to buy a gun.

The Department of Justice in 2005 found that 28 states – including Arizona – file zero or very few mental health records with the NICS, five states supply some records, and 17 states – including California – either supply a large number or have a large number of disqualifying mental health records in their own databases.

In 2007, changes to federal law required states, as a condition of federal assistance, to make their mental health records available to the NICS. Thus far, only 11 states have received funding under the bill. Penalties begin this year, but states are eligible to receive waivers if they can show they are making a reasonable effort to comply or if they have privacy laws that prevent releasing mental health records.

In short, we are in a dangerous situation. The public doesn't trust the government to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't own them, and the clear shortcomings of the current system partially supports that mistrust.

Both the law and its administration seem designed to allow the killing rather than the saving of lives. Ideally, we need leaders to say "no" to semiautomatic weapon sales to the general public and "yes" to stronger enforcement of laws to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns.

In aspiring to the words of President Barack Obama's call at the Tucson memorial last week, we need to appeal to our better angels and do something meaningful and enduring for the fallen.