6 Things We Learned at the Senate's Big Guns Hearing
Mark Kelly and Wayne LaPierre agree on something. At Wednesday's much-anticipated Senate judiciary committee hearing on gun violence—featuring former astronaut Mark Kelly, Baltimore police chief John Johnson, NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and others—the fireworks, such as they were, erupted over background checks and high-capacity magazines. But on mental health, a significant element of President Barack Obama's gun control package, there appeared to be some agreement. Here's Kelly on the Tucson shooter who tried to kill his wife, Gabby Giffords: "He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and, even if he had, Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness it had not submitted to the background check system." And here's Wayne LaPierre: "We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."
Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn (among others) lamented the failure of state agencies to turn over mental health records to the NICBS, and suggested it might be worth examining the ease with which the outpatient mentally ill can obtain weapons. Still, it was unclear how far LaPierre would go to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, given that he generally opposed more expansive and effective background checks.
When Gabby Giffords speaks, you should listen. The former Arizona congresswoman paused for seven seconds before reading a statement that was only 62 words. Here it is:
Chuck Grassley is okay with the CDC studying guns after all. Maybe. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used his opening statement to challenge the president's complaint that Congress had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. "Contrary to what you may have heard, Congress has never prohibited CDC from researching gun violence," Grassley said. "Rather, Congress prevented federal research to 'advocate or promote gun control,' which some government researchers had been doing under the guise of taxpayer supported science. Had Congress actually prohibited gun violence research, the president could not legally have directed CDC to conduct that research."
But that's not what Grassley has been saying for the last two weeks. On January 15, when President Obama announced his plans to direct the CDC to renew its research into gun violence, the senator's spokesman noted that funding restrictions enacted by Congress "effectively keeps [the CDC] from conducting any research or analysis related to gun violence." On Tuesday, Grassley took to the floor of the Senate to hammer Obama's CDC directive, arguing that "gun violence is not a disease, and lawful gun ownership is not a disease."
So is this a new position? I've reached out to Grassley's office for a response and will update if I hear back.
Lindsey Graham thinks the AR-15 will replace cops. The South Carolina GOPer—who originally planned on bringing unloaded guns to the hearing—lamented the fact that state budget cuts have forced municipalities to downsize their police departments. But according to Graham, that doesn't mean the federal government should pick up the tab or communities should shift their priorities. Instead, it means, for Graham, that the AR-15 rifle (the kind used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza) has become a more viable alternative for self-defense. Graham also asserted that semi-automatic weapons could come in quite handy in the event that one's neighborhood is taken over by "marauding gangs" following a natural disaster. (LaPierre referred to the need to survive a "riot.") "I own an AR-15," Graham told the panel. And so should you.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives may as well not exist. In the first three hours of the hearing, the word "ATF" came up only once, even as Republican senators and key witnesses (LaPierre most frequently) griped about the failure of the federal government to enforce existing gun laws. What they didn't mention was the role they'd played in making that impossible—by curbing funding for the ATF and handicapping enforcement.
Ladies love the AR-15! The women with yellow-and-black "Stop Gun Violence Now" stickers snickered when Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, reported, "Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15's are their weapons of choice!" They laughed a bit louder when Trotter asserted, "I speak on behalf of millions of American women." At a hearing where even the normally bombastic LaPierre seemed to have missed his morning coffee, Trotter's call to put more assault weapons in the hands of young mothers with babies may have been as close as the hearing came to pyrotechnics. Here's the video, via TPM: