The horror of yet another school shooting occurring at our front door was inevitable. Parkland, Florida. Santa Fe, Texas. And now Noblesville, Indiana. No community is immune.
The successive deadly mass shootings have again ignited a national conversation about regulation of firearms. Advocates for improved regulation of the sale and possession of firearms have called for a ban on the sale of assault rifles, enhanced background checks, better screening of those with mental illness, and other familiar proposals.
We would hope that the public outcry over mass shootings and tragedies in our schools would move Congress to action, but Congress continues to show no appetite for sensible regulation of firearms. On the contrary, pro-gun legislation continues to dominate in the halls of Congress.
As the Marion County prosecutor, I am a member of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence. PAGV is an association of major city prosecutors advancing prosecutorial and policy solutions to the national public health and safety crisis of gun violence.
In November 2017, I participated in a two-day PAGV conference in Washington, D.C., to focus attention on gun legislation, including lobbying members of Congress regarding bills supported and opposed by our group. Police officers from national police and sheriff associations also participated in the conference. Three bills specifically targeted for opposition by PAGV were the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, and the Veterans Second Amendment Rights Protection Act. All three remain pending.
Every state establishes the standards by which its citizens can obtain a concealed carry permit. Additionally, each state determines whether it will recognize the concealed carry permits of other states. Some states have strong laws limiting who can obtain a permit, such as required training and evaluation; other states issue concealed carry permits using lower standards, even to nonresidents. Thirteen states do not require a permit at all, meaning a resident of that state may carry a concealed firearm. Indiana requires a permit to carry a handgun, without regard to whether it is concealed.
The Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would allow any person with a concealed carry permit, as well as individuals from states that do not require any permit at all, to carry a concealed handgun anywhere in the United States.
All states have crafted their own firearms licensing laws to address their unique public safety needs. For example, a concentrated urban population within the state of New York requires different considerations than Wyoming. Some states have very strong laws limiting who can carry concealed weapons. For example, at least 31 states require applicants to complete safety training, at least 27 states prevent people convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes of violence from obtaining permits, and at least 23 states prevent alcohol abusers from obtaining permits. As noted, 13 states do not require a permit at all, meaning a person may carry even without a background check. Instead of creating a national standard for public safety, the bill reduces all states’ standards to allow untrained and unpermitted individuals to carry a handgun in any state.
The bill would effectively require law enforcement to become knowledgeable about regulations in all 50 states to determine whether an individual is authorized to carry a concealed handgun. However, law enforcement officers have no way to verify that someone presenting an out-of-state permit, or claiming to be a resident of a state that requires no permit at all, is in fact a law-abiding visitor.
In addition to PAGV, organizations which have spoken out against this ill-advised legislation include Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association, Police Foundation, Police Executive Research Forum and a coalition of 17 attorneys general.
The House of Representatives does not care about the opinion of police officers and prosecutors. In December, the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act passed in the House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated he plans to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate prior to upcoming midterm elections to put some red state Democratic senators in an awkward position.
Also pending in Congress is the euphemistically titled Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE) which, buried beneath the innocent sounding title, includes dangerous provisions which have nothing to do with hunting and fishing. The bill would remove silencers from the regulatory requirements of the National Firearms Act, which has been in effect since 1934. Under the NFA, potential buyers of silencers must submit fingerprints, a photograph and undergo a federal background check. It is because of these safeguards that silencers are rarely trafficked or used in crimes. However, congressional sponsors of the act believe everyone should be able to simply purchase a silencer over the counter.
The SHARE Act also loosens current federal law and pre-empts state law on the transport of firearms and ammunition across state lines. It would also remove the authority of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to classify certain high-caliber ammunition as “armor-piercing” and removes certain types of shotguns, shotgun shells and large caliber rifles now classified as “destructive devices” from being subject to federal regulation under the NFA. In addition, the bill also strips federal authorities of the ability to prevent the importation of dangerous firearms not suitable for sporting purposes. The types of military-style firearms that can be imported into the country from overseas would increase, potentially flooding the market with foreign guns.
The SHARE Act was passed out of a House committee. The bill remains pending in Congress.
The Veterans Second Amendment Rights Protection Act would undermine the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to protect veterans suffering from documented mental health issues. The act would prohibit the VA from sending to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database the names of veterans they have determined, through a thorough and appealable administrative process, to be mentally incompetent. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die by gun suicide every day. Two-thirds of suicides by veterans are by guns. By prohibiting the VA from adding the names of veterans it deems unfit to own a deadly weapon to the NICS system, the bill will ease gun ownership for mentally disabled veterans and make this vulnerable group a greater threat to themselves and others. The bill was passed in the House last year.
It is discouraging to admit that those of us participating in the PAGV conference were equally unsuccessful in persuading congressional members to move forward on those bills we support. Several of the bills seek to address circumstances of domestic violence and create additional protection for victims of such violence. Those bills include the Gun Violence Prevention Order Act and its companion bill, the Gun Violence Restraining Order Act; The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act; Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act and its companion bill, the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Abusers Act; and Domestic Violence Records Reporting Improvement Act of 2017. There has been no movement in either the House or Senate on any of those bills.
The Background Check Completion Act would prohibit gun dealers from transferring a firearm at any time before first receiving a confirmed background check approval through the NICS system. Under current federal law, a licensed gun dealer is allowed to proceed with a sale even without a completed background check after three business days. The bill is also referred to as closing the “Charleston loophole” because Dylann Roof, the racist convicted of killing nine worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, would have been prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm by federal law but for the ability of a dealer to complete the sale without a completed background check.
The bill was introduced in October, 2017. There has been no movement on this legislation in either house of Congress.
The most sobering aspect of the PAGV conference was viewing body-worn camera video of a Las Vegas police officer during the mass shooting in October of last year. The rapid gunfire was identical to the sound of automatic gunfire I recalled from M-16 automatic rifle training in the U.S. Army. The shooter was able to fire over 1,100 rounds within 10 minutes. Fifty-eight concert goers lost their lives; almost 500 more were injured.
As we now know, the shooter was able to effectively convert semi-automatic rifles into automatic weapons by the addition of a bump stock. Almost immediately, the Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act was introduced to make it unlawful to import, sell, manufacture, transfer or possess a trigger-crank, bump-fire device or any device, accessory or attachment designed to accelerate the rate of fire of a semi-automatic rifle. Incredibly, neither house of Congress has summoned the will to take any action on this bill to ban such bump stock devices.
In spite of the tiresome, hysterical claims by the gun lobby that the “government wants to take our firearms,” the legal reality is that the Second Amendment is not absolute and does not preclude reasonable regulation of the sale and possession of guns. I own a semi-automatic handgun, as well as two rifles which have been passed down through my family. That does not preclude me from advocating that we can and must do better to halt the proliferation of firearms in our country and access by children or those who intend to do harm with them.
We should all be outraged by the refusal of Congress to act. While it is disheartening to admit that those of us who witness the horrible consequences of gun violence every single day are unable to overcome the gun lobby stranglehold on Congress, hopelessness and despair are not an acceptable response. On March 24, I attended the March for Our Lives organized in Indianapolis and saw the reaction by students, parents, educators, and even members of my own family when I described these realities of Congress. In the aftermath of Parkland, school children throughout the country have demanded action by Congress and state legislatures. The organization, sincerity and maturity in their actions should inspire us all. We can only hope that members of Congress will be willing now, if ever, to listen to those young people who have lost their friends and classmates to senseless gun violence.