President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging plan to curb gun violence in America isn’t likely to be enacted in full, but experts say the sheer breadth of his proposal will provide a national blueprint for action that can guide lawmakers, fuel a powerful lobbying effort and sustain a national dialogue on gun control.
The mix of executive orders and congressional proposals offered one month after the mass slayings of 20 elementary school children and six school staff members in Newtown, Conn., drew widespread praise from experts in the mental health, education and law enforcement fields. Each found something to like in the package.
“The genius of the president’s plan is that it acknowledges that no single thing is going to solve this problem,” said Kim Anderson, director of the National Education Association’s Center for Advocacy and Outreach. “It actually does take a set of recommendations and proposals. So the comprehensive nature of this response is something that we’re very pleased with.”
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the president’s calls to ban sales of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines “hold tremendous promise for creating safer, healthier communities.”
“Today’s proposals represent a real opportunity to make long-lasting progress on reducing gun violence,” Benjamin said. “Now, Congress must get to work.”
When the assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004, police saw a “precipitous drop” in shootings with those weapons, said Terrence Cunningham, chief of the Wellesley, Mass., Police Department and fourth vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But gun makers began to skirt the ban by changing the size and appearance of weapons to avoid having them classified as assault weapons.
If the ban is reinstated by Congress, “I think that people will be alerted to that this time, and I hope that they’re more thoughtful” in how the laws are written, Cunningham said.
Cunningham also applauded Obama’s push for more information about a potential gun buyer’s mental health history during background checks. In Massachusetts, Cunningham said, police are only notified if an applicant has been confined to a state mental hospital. Information on private mental hospital stays and out-of-state hospital stays are not provided.
“So even if I knew this person had severe mental deficiencies and I don’t want to issue them a firearms license because I feel it’s unsafe, I still have to by statute. So having the ability to say, ‘No,’” Cunningham said, would make the community safer.
Larry Amerson, president of the National Sheriff’s Association, said Obama’s call to expand mental health services would also help. Sheriff of Calhoun County, Ala., Amerson said that four of the five people his department has shot and killed during his tenure had long-term mental problems. But Alabama’s state mental health services budget has been cut 36 percent, from $100 million in 2009 to $64.2 million in 2012.
“We’ve got to improve in that area, but without the support and encouragement of the federal government, that’s hard to do,” he said.
Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, cheered Obama’s plan to enact the final regulations on a federal law that requires group health plans to provide coverage for mental health services at the same level as general medical and surgical benefits. But he expressed caution about Obama’s call to have mental health counselors provide police with information on potentially dangerous patients.
“On a given day, well over half of the people in this country with a diagnosable mental health problem don’t get treatment,” Fitzpatrick said. “And a lot of that has to do with the stigma surrounding mental illness. So we don’t want to create gun laws that block people from taking that first step to get evaluated and treated.”
Some people worry that Obama’s proposal to fund more police officers for schools could result in more student arrests for nonviolent offenses.
“Should the White House pursue this approach of placing more police in schools, there must be specific restrictions on how resources are allocated to ensure there are not unintended consequences for the youth we are really trying to protect,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.
The National Rifle Association, which has fought almost all gun-control measures, said Obama’s plans put too much emphasis on targeting gun owners and not enough on protecting children in schools.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the gun rights group said in a statement. “Only honest law-abiding gun owners will be affected (by the proposals) and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
The NRA has called for placing armed officers in every school and supports firearms training for teachers.
But a recent survey by the National Education Association found that 68 percent of its members oppose arming educators. The organization does, however, support having armed officers in a school, if local school officials decide to do so.
Anderson of the NEA said the organization will begin a massive lobbying effort that will include phone calls to lawmakers and outreach to parents as well. In February, hundreds of members will come to Washington to meet with members of Congress to discuss student safety.
“Educators are as much of a family as firefighters and police officers,” she said. “And when we lose an educator to gun violence, it impacts the entire family. And those are stories we don’t want members of Congress to ignore. And we won’t let them forget that our members died trying to save their students.”