The Road Ahead for Newtown Legislation

At the beginning of the first Senate hearing on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) instructed those in the hearing room to stand if they had been affected by gun violence. As nearly everyone in the packed hearing room, including several Senators, stood in silence, the powerful tone was set for the debate over what to do next.

For several months, I have attended every event and hearing on Capitol Hill regarding the Senate's response to the Newtown shootings. I saw the father of a slain first grader whose uncontrollable sobbing at a Judiciary Committee hearing left everyone in the room quiet and still. I witnessed testimony from a doctor who struggled to retell the story of removing bullets from the heads of five-year-olds. And I saw incredible passion and a sense of purpose from both sides of the aisle.

With that in mind, the Senate voted yesterday to move forward with debate on the proposed gun control legislation. The base bill contains three separate components:

  1. Harsh penalties for fraudulently buying a gun for another person;
  2. Increased funding for more security procedures and equipment in schools; and
  3. An expansion of gun background checks.

The next step in the process will be debate and a window for Senators to introduce amendments to the existing legislation. Dozens of amendments are expected, ranging from an assault weapons ban to limiting violence in video games. As we previously mentioned, the ACLU has concerns about the civil liberties implications of several possible amendments we are likely to see in the coming weeks.

Well-meaning policymakers might assume that adding more police or school resources officers makes students safer, but experience demonstrates otherwise. Some senators will likely introduce amendments that would increase funding for placing law enforcement in schools or even arming school personnel. If we're going to make sure that schools are sanctuaries of education and not prison fortresses, we need to foster understanding and trust between students and teachers. Placing law enforcement of any kind in schools can tend to foster a culture of fear and often results in punishing the kids we're trying to protect. Without critical safeguards–likely to be omitted from any proposals in the current debate, such a system tends to push more kids into the criminal justice system for things that used to be handled wholly within the school administrative system.

We also have concerns about the privacy implications of the bipartisan universal background check proposal. Possible amendments could make it easier to create huge databases of sensitive health records in order to conduct a background check. If our country is going to have effective background checks, they must be conducted in a way that protects sensitive health records and does not discourage people from seeking drug treatment.

Although none have been proposed so far, we're also on the lookout for increased criminal penalties that create new mandatory minimums, which wrest control from the hands of judges and impose one-size-fits-all sentences. Overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences are one of the primary reasons the federal prison population has grown by nearly 800% in the last several decades.

The legislation still faces a long road ahead before it becomes law. The ACLU will continue to press Congress to make America a safer place for our children without creating unintended consequences for our civil liberties. We need to create a safe and healthy environment for our children to learn and grow, which includes funding for education, positive behavior support programs, improved access to mental health resources, and programs that guide at-risk young people away from criminal action.

As we work to prevent more tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Tucson, Congress has a responsibility to protect our children's civil liberties, for now and for the future.

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A disabled NYer

Do you know about what is already happening in NYS re the NYSAFE Act? There is a virtual witch hunt going on against pistol permit holders who have been prescribed anti-anxiety or SSRI medications. An Erie County resident lost his permit for being on zoloft. The State Police now claim "oops, we had the wrong guy." Monroe County's pistol permit application process now requires people to waive their HIPAA rights completely as a precondtion to applying for a permit. I know the Second Amendment is not your favorite part of the Constitution, but will you stand by while this blatant attack on medical privacy and the rights of disabled people goes forward? Please look into what is happening. The SAFE Act requires that mental health professionals report patients who they deem "a danger to themselves or others", but does not authorize this wholesale fishing expedition into the medial records of anyone who has ever sought counseling or treatment for any reason, which is what Monroe County is requiring to be disclosed. Here is the link to the pdf of the application containing the required release:
http://www.monroecounty.gov/Image/Pistol%20Permit%20Application%20for%20...

Confused

It's already a felony to lie on a Form 4473, including the question of whether or not you are the intended recipient of the weapon. A straw purchase is already illegal, but the Vice President has rather cavalierly stated that they don't have the manpower or the funding to (paraphrasing) "go after everyone who ticks the wrong box". So can someone explain to me the point of creating a harsher penalty for a law that's already not being fully enforced? Or is it just feel-good blather put forward to soothe the minds of people who don't know how the laws already in effect work?

Michael Srsic

The Public Safety And Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, aka the Manchin-Toomey bill, has nothing to do with gun rights for me. I have no intention of ever buying a gun but nevertheless my personal health records will be shared at the very least with NICS.
I think that's true but the bill is very unclear on privacy matters. Certainly current law prohibits those "adjudicated or committed" for mental health reasons from owning a gun AND we may assume the intent of waiving HIPAA privacy is to authorize states to share these mental health records WHETHER or NOT that person has applied for a gun permit.
But I'm not lawyer, I don't see any limitation on whose records will be shared. Further, I don't see any limitations on who will use this database and for what other purposes.

Vicki B.

I don't care, b/c I'm a gunshot victim. Shot in the back three times by a robber who bought his gun then the same way he could NOW if he got out of prison.
He went to Nevada to a gun show and bought the guns without alerting ANYbody to the fact b/c he never needed a background check. And he could still do that today if the Parole Board of California decides to be stupid and let him out on Early Release.

I believe in a Second Amendment right, I guess. I mean my brother's a hunter and he's had guns his whole life, but he's never had semi-automatics that could be turned FULLY automatic with the flick of a switch, and he doesn't hunt with what most people call assault rifles and which ARE that according to state standards. He also doesn't get his jollies by shooting up mass numbers of people.
I also believe you should leave the Second Amendment alone, don't "repeal it" like SOME gun control people want to do. The Second Amendment didn't shoot me. A person did, and it was someone who had alREADY received a charge for gun violence beFORE he shot me and the other guy.
If he'd been FORCED to do a background check, he would NOT have been able to buy all the ammunition without alerting police, but they didn't even want BACKGROUND checks to pass the vote and back then background checks DIDN'T pass.
That's when I gave up all hope in humanity when it comes to the NRA board of directors. If they don't even want background checks for EVERYone - no exceptions - then Stephen King was right when he called their lot "street-savvy gun pimps."
They care more about sales than anything else, even though there are literally hundreds of thousands of weapons already out there.

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