Mental health issue highlighted
WASHINGTON — Louisiana’s congressional delegation fell along party lines when it comes to the renewed push for new gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., killing spree last week.
Republican members of the delegation insisted that the main problem regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy is the nation’s lack of mental health support and not the public’s access to firearms.
On the other hand, the delegation’s two Democratic members insisted that Congress must consider stricter gun regulations while still upholding Second Amendment rights.
Adam Lanza, 20, who may have struggled with mental health issues, murdered 26 people, including 20 children, at the school before taking his own life. Lanza, who was taken to gun ranges by his mother, reportedly used a Bushmaster AR-15 assault weapon and other firearms she legally owned to kill her and, ultimately, himself.
People have always had access to guns, said Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, but the “common ground” with many recent shootings is “poorly treated mental illness.”
“It’s not a time for politics,” Cassidy said. “It’s a time to reach out by our prayers and our actions and our words.”
President Barack Obama formed a new task force Wednesday led by Vice President Joe Biden to offer new gun control proposals by the end of January. Obama specifically mentioned potentially banning “military-style assault weapons” and “high-capacity ammunition clips,” as well as eliminating loopholes in order to ensure that all gun purchases require background checks.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said he agreed with all of the president’s potential proposals, including eliminating the loophole of bypassing background checks when buying firearms at gun shows.
“I think we need to have an adult conversation about the Second Amendment and what it means and doesn’t mean,” Richmond said, arguing that AK-47s and semiautomatic rifles are “weapons of mass destruction.”
“The framers of the Constitution did not have semiautomatic rifles in mind when they did the Second Amendment,” Richmond said.
Part of the issue is mental health treatment, he said, but Louisiana is going in the wrong direction by cutting funding for mental health services for several years.
One mental health hospital, Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, for instance, is undergoing layoffs and a partial privatization because of ongoing budget cuts to mental health services in the state.
At the same time, Louisiana added arguably the strongest Second Amendment language in the nation in November when voters approved a state constitutional amendment to ensure that any gun control measure is “subject to strict scrutiny.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., would not discuss specifics, but she said in an email response that she is open to additional gun control measures as long as the public’s Second Amendment rights are upheld.
“We must find a way to balance gun rights with the challenges of mental illness,” Landrieu stated. “And we must better enforce the rules already on the books, while considering new regulations that might be appropriate.
“Even some of the most respected law enforcement leaders in our country are calling for commonsense reforms because of this terrible violence in our communities and on our streets,” Landrieu continued. “This isn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue. It’s an American issue. And the American people expect us to come together and act. The safety of our children, our communities, and our nation depend on it.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., declined comment for this story, but the Republican House members of the Louisiana delegation said they oppose new gun control efforts.
“It’s really issues about mental health and human behavior,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden. “We’ve had powerful guns for a long time.”
Fleming said he may consider additional measures to further ensure that people with diagnosed mental disorders cannot access firearms. “His (Lanza’s) mom not only trained him in weapons but gave him access to guns and that turned out to be a tragic mistake,” Fleming said.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and argued that “more needs to be done with mental health concerns.”
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, also agreed with that argument. “It (more gun control) is just going to hurt the people who are playing by the rules,” he said.
“It’s an insult to the grieving process,” Scalise said, when people try to “exploit” tragedies to push political causes.
Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, said he is open to “anything within reason that can be done to prevent such a heinous act.” But he quickly added that he does not believe that includes new gun control proposals.
“At the same time, I am not convinced that tighter gun control measures would prevent similar incidents in the future,” Alexander stated. “Rather than exclusively blaming current gun policies, we need to evaluate the big picture and all factors involved with such heinous acts of killing.”
Legislatively, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is working on a bill to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
There is no official definition of an “assault weapon.” But the former ban focused on 18 specific firearms and certain military features on guns. For instance, certain models of AR-15s and AK-47s were previously banned.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also said Wednesday that she is forming a gun control task force led by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., whom she described as an “avid hunter.”
As for Obama’s effort led by Biden, Obama said at a White House briefing: “This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task, to pull together real reforms right now.”
Obama said this will include a broader approach to “look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence. And any actions we must take must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.
“But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing,” Obama said. “The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can’t steadily reduce the violence, and prevent the very worst violence.”