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Congress Takes Action on Gun Violence

There were over 45,000 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2020. That’s 14 percent more than 2019, 25 percent more than 2015 and 43 percent more than 2010. The U.S. consistently has the highest rate of gun deaths and highest rate of mass shootings of all high-income countries in the world. Following decades of increasingly frequent mass shootings, suicides, domestic violence and other unnecessary deaths by guns, it’s clear that gun violence is a threat to public health that has been left unchecked for too long.

A majority of Americans recognize gun violence as a big or moderately big issue. And more than half of Americans believe something needs to be done about it. However, gun control is a contentious issue in American politics and has been notoriously difficult to make progress on. But this past June, for the first time in almost 30 years, Congress reached an agreement on a bipartisan gun control bill that aims to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people and save lives.

The new bill, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, represents a rare moment of bipartisan agreement and the first promise of progress on a highly charged issue. Because it’s ultimately a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, the bill puts an emphasis on keeping people safe rather than imposing limits on Second Amendment rights. The bill’s leading lawmakers say their goal is to save lives and prevent mass shootings, such as the recent events in Buffalo and Uvalde. The mechanisms for achieving that include enhanced background checks, promoting red flag laws, expanding mental health resources and addressing the “boyfriend loophole,” which we explore in more detail below.

Enhanced Background Checks

Part of the bipartisan plan is to expand the background check process for gun buyers age 18 to 21. Under the new legislation, gun sellers will have three days to check into any young buyer’s criminal and mental health history. If the first background check reveals anything questionable, the seller can take an extra seven business days to investigate further before completing the sale. This is noteworthy because in both the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, the shooters were 18 years old and obtained their guns legally. The hope is that by expanding the background check process for young buyers, gun dealers will have ample time to perform thorough investigations and keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“Red-Flag” Laws

States will also be given millions in funding to implement red-flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people who are legally deemed a danger to themselves or others – in other words, from people contemplating murder or suicide. In 46 percent of mass shooting events, attackers told someone about their intent to cause harm beforehand.

Red-flag laws are intended to create a point of intervention and take away lethal means from someone in crisis to reduce gun-related tragedies. Red flag laws already exist in 19 states and the District of Columbia and appear to work when used correctly. Several Republican senators voiced concerns about this measure, saying it could be an infringement on Americans’ right to bear arms. In response, senators pushed to ensure no one is flagged without the chance to dispute the charge in an in-person hearing.

Expanding Mental Health Resources

Mental health has been positioned at the forefront of the gun violence debate, as many perpetrators of gun violence (including suicides) are assumed to have had mental health illnesses such as depression or certain personality disorders. Because of this, lawmakers included further funding for expanding access to mental health services as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. This includes $60 million over five years to provide mental health training for primary care clinicians, $150 million to support the national suicide prevention hotline and $28 million for trauma care in schools, among other similar programs and services.

Some Democrats are concerned that the increased focus on mental health distracts from what they perceive as the primary issue: access to guns. However, while there is debate about how much of a role mental health plays in mass shooting events, both parties agree that expanding access to mental health resources is useful regardless.

The “Boyfriend Loophole”

Finally, the new bill aims to close an important loophole that currently exists regarding domestic violence. As it stands, only domestic abusers who have been married to, lived with or had children with the victim are restricted from buying guns. This leaves any other romantic partners in a gray area, but the new legislation expands the definition of an “intimate partner” to include any current or recent former dating relationship. This won’t be applied retroactively, but anyone convicted of domestic violence against a current or former dating partner will be barred from purchasing a weapon under the new bill.

There’s no debate this bill falls short of what some Americans – from both sides – want, and it is undoubtedly not enough to put an end to all gun deaths. But it is ultimately a step in the right direction in addressing an enormous threat to public health that persists in our country. A combination of these efforts has the potential to significantly reduce gun deaths in America and, at the very least, pave the way for more conversations, regulation and bigger changes going forward.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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