The ABA urged Congress to take swift, evidence-informed legislative steps to reduce gun violence earlier this month following the tragic high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 that killed 17 people.
“Decisive action is imperative,” ABA President Hilarie Bass wrote in a March 6 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She emphasized that more than 30,000 Americans die each year from gun violence and offered the ABA’s legal expertise regarding due process and the Second Amendment.
A flurry of legislative activity has taken place in the weeks following the shooting. Three ABA-supported proposals in particular have gained some traction: fixes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS); research on gun violence; and the use of gun violence restraining orders (GVRO).
National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)
“Background checks are only effective if NICS contains timely and complete information,” Bass emphasized in her letter. The ABA supports legislative efforts to ensure that federal agencies upload information into the system in a timely manner and supports funding to help state and local governments improve transmission of records to federal and state repositories as well as capacity for determining individuals’ eligibility to purchase firearms.
P.L. 115-141 (H.R. 1625), the omnibus fiscal year 2018 appropriations legislation signed by the president March 23, includes the language of S. 2135, known as the Fix NICS Act of 2017. S. 2135, sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), requires federal law enforcement agencies to upload information regarding criminal and mental health reports into the system and authorizes grants to promote the reporting. The language also requires gun retailers to check the database before making a new gun sale.
Research on Gun Violence
The ABA supports a public health approach to addressing gun violence, which depends on research to identify gun violence risks and develop and test preventive strategies. In her March 6 letter, Bass urged Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment, which she said has had a “chilling effect” on gun-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies.
The recently passed omnibus fiscal year 2018 spending bill includes a clarification regarding the Dickey Amendment, giving the CDC authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.
Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs)
The ABA passed policy in August 2017 urging the enactment of laws to allow courts to issue GVROs to temporarily remove guns from persons found to be dangerous. On March 22, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) introduced S. 2607, the “Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act.”
The bill includes provisions that would, while protecting due process, allow family members, law enforcement, and others to petition a court to confiscate guns from individuals declared to be a danger to themselves or others and to prevent them from purchasing firearms.
Following the shooting in Parkland, the Florida legislature became the sixth state legislature to pass similar legislation, and more than more than 20 other states have comparable bills pending.
Bass also recommended that the Senate Judiciary Committee take action on other reforms to reduce gun violence, including universal background checks, restrictions on the sale and possession of assault weapons, and civil remedies and administrative enforcement of gun laws.
During a March 14 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on legislative proposals to improve school safety, committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) expressed his dedication to doing something in the wake of the Parkland shooting. He stressed that there were law enforcement failures in this case and that it is important to address what went wrong. The hearing included three panels featuring Rubio and Nelson, federal law enforcement agency heads, survivors, and family members of the victims.
Those pushing for action against gun violence took to the streets of Washington, D.C., and cities across the nation March 24 for the March for Our Lives, which was organized by high school students. The ABA Law Student Division joined the effort by organizing law student participation in D.C. and other locations around the country. Members of the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence also participated in marches and rallies.
Bass applauded the commitment of the young people addressing gun violence. “The peaceful demonstrations and advocacy by our young citizens since the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been inspirational and impressive. As an association of lawyers, we salute this civic engagement and hope it shows policy makers the way forward to end this senseless violence,” she said in a March 21 statement.