Gun Violence Prevention in 2014: Off to a Great Start

Yesterday, five days after the announcement of two executive orders from the desk of President Obama that move his gun violence prevention agenda forward, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords published an op-ed in the New York Times marking the three-year anniversary of the shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, that left her with a permanent brain injury.

One line in particular stuck out to me as I read her op-ed–her suggestion that one way we can help prevent gun violence tragedies is by extend[ing] mental health resources into schools and communities, so the dangerously mentally ill find it easier to receive treatment than to buy firearms.” 

In 2013, Congress passed zero new federal laws to curb gun violence in this country—which is distressing to think about considering that every year, over 30,000 Americans are killed with guns.  As Reform Jews, we have heeded the commandment “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).  Together with faith groups across America, we have logged nearly 23,000 calls to the U.S. Senate, sharing with them that we believe the time is now to act to prevent gun violence.

President Obama’s two new executive actions follow the twenty-five executive actions he signed last year, in part as a response to a lack of action by Congress.

  • The first rule, proposed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), clarifies who is prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law due to mental illness.  The proposed rule would prohibit both those who had been subjected to involuntary outpatient and inpatient commitments (previously, only those who had been subjected to inpatient treatment had been prohibited from firearm possession).  This ‘loophole’ was discussed on a national level after the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, in which the shooter had been involuntary committed to outpatient treatment, but was still legally able to purchase a gun.  Seven years later, this action by President Obama will close that loophole.
  • The second rule, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provides express authority for states to share information about individuals effected by the DOJ rule with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  This rule clarifies that nothing in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents states from notifying NICS when someone becomes ineligible to possess a firearm based on a court-ordered commitment or other federally disqualifying adjudication.  It’s important to note that nothing in this rule requires reporting on general mental health visits, nor does it prohibit someone from owning a gun as a result of having sought treatment.

Twenty years after the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the first federal law to mandate background checks, fifteen states report fewer than 100 mental health records in their NICS system.  These executive actions begin to fix that problem.  Josh Horowitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence argues that these executive actions help bring us closer to the goal of not only expanding background checks for gun purchases, but strengthening them as well.

A few weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services issued rules requiring insurers to provide equal benefits for mental health treatment.  This was an important step forward for mental health advocacy in the United States and demonstrated the administration’s commitment to funding mental health initiatives.

Preventing future gun violence tragedies is complicated work; no one rule or law will make it happen.  But, we must remain committed to finding solutions, working together, enacting laws that complement each other to reduce gun violence, de-stigmatize mental illness, protect privacy and make our country safer.  And as difficult as this may seem, Congresswoman Giffords’ words ring true: “We’re not daunted.”


 Tell Congress that you support the bipartisan proposals to expand background checks to cover all commercial sales, including gun shows and classifieds (S.AMDT. 715/H.R. 1565).

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Deborah Goldberg

About Deborah Goldberg

Deborah Goldberg is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. She graduated in 2013 from Washington University in St. Louis and is originally from Deerfield, IL where she is a member of Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim.

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