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Clinging to gun control positions — more change, but more of the same

- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2013

On gun control, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

One year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., all sides of the debate — from President Obama and single-issue groups led by outgoing New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others to powerful gun advocacy voices — sound much the same as they did 12 months ago in the immediate aftermath of one of the worst shootings in American history.

Despite impassioned pleas from the administration, families of the Newtown victims and others, no meaningful gun legislation has cleared Congress, and the prospects of such measures passing anytime soon appear slim at best.

Meanwhile, gun rights forces continue to embrace the strategy that emerged after Sandy Hook: rolling back restrictive firearms laws and increasing the number of guns in the hands of the right people, arguing that such moves will help prevent tragedies.

"The problem is not how we're going to keep bad guys from getting guns. They're going to get guns," Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

"The problem is when are we going to stop good guys from getting guns from being able to protect themselves so when one of these dirtbags goes into a mall or a school, somebody is able to protect themselves and others by having their own gun," he said.

This has been the general stance of gun rights advocates since National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre laid it out in the days after the Newtown rampage. Gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother and then went to the school and claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults before killing himself.

Since that day, other shootings have rocked the nation, including a killing spree at the Washington Navy Yard and an incident last week at a Centennial, Colo., high school where, authorities say, 18-year-old Karl Pierson wounded a fellow student before taking his own life.

The sheer volume of gun violence has kept the issue at the forefront of debate, but the national conversation hasn't moved many to change their stances.

A bill to enact tighter background checks for gun purchases, already watered down from some liberals' wish list, failed to clear the Senate this year despite some Republican support. Even if the Senate had passed the bill, its chances in the House were minimal.

Tougher firearms laws passed in Colorado but cost two state senators their jobs after a recall effort spearheaded by the NRA and local groups.

Gun rights groups, keenly aware that the issue isn't going away anytime soon, plan to spend millions of dollars heading into the 2014 election cycle to support candidates of their choice and to run ads against those they see as favoring gun control.

Gun control advocates also plan to spend big heading into the political contests. Indeed, they badly outspent gun rights forces in the Colorado recall elections.

Those who have been affected directly by gun violence remain very much a part of the public debate and expect their elected leaders to not give up.

"Like President Barack Obama told me, and Vice President Biden, that no one ever thought slavery would be abolished, no one ever thought women would have rights. And I believe we will have sensible gun laws in the future," said Carlee Soto, the little sister of a teacher who died protecting her students in the Newtown shootings.

Indeed, Mr. Obama and his allies in Congress plan to forge ahead.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said last week that the national conversation on gun control is not over, though he has acknowledged that passing legislation in the current political climate is a long shot.

Over the weekend, Mr. Bloomberg promised that "our fight to end this dreadful national tragedy will go on. Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, herself wounded during a shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, said that he and his organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, will be part of the debate "for the long haul."

Again using his unique pulpit as commander in chief, Mr. Obama took the same position Saturday before he and first lady Michelle Obama took part in a moment of silence and candlelighting ceremony to honor the Sandy Hook victims.

"On this anniversary of a day we will never forget ... we haven't yet done enough to make our communities and our country safer. We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily. We have to do more to heal troubled minds," Mr. Obama said.

The president's mention of the need to "heal troubled minds" underscores a subtle yet important development in the larger debate. Over the past year, the national conversation, while still focused on gun control, has begun to shift to the need for greater mental health services.

Gunmen such as Lanza, the Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and others have exhibited clear signs of mental illness. Despite disagreements on gun control, there is a widespread consensus that firearms must be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Similarly, there is agreement on the need for greater services to address the mental health issues that sometimes lead directly to violence.

Last week, Mr. Biden — after meeting with families of victims of the Newtown shootings — announced $100 million in additional federal funding for mental health services across the nation, including $50 million specifically to construct or expand facilities in rural areas.

But even that effort is just a drop in the bucket, say professionals, who believe the scope of the mental health problem isn't fully understood by political leaders or by the American population as a whole.

"We need a lot more spending and treatment on early intervention," said Jamison Monroe, the founder and CEO of the Newport Academy, a mental health treatment facility 30 miles from Sandy Hook.

Mr. Monroe said the announcement of more federal funding "is a sign that the administration recognizes this is an area of concern and that an investment in this area will help improve life for a number of individuals and hopefully prevent tragedies from happening."

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