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Stop the massacres - save our children

March 5, 2018
In The News

Mid-morning, Jan. 19, 1989, my wife Patti and I cautiously entered the intensive Care Unit at San Joaquin General Hospital. In the bed lay a tiny boy of just five, his right side and arm wrapped in massive bandages.

Hovering over his bed were his Hmong parents, recent refugees from war-torn Laos. They pleaded, “We came here to get away from war. How could this happen in America?” Later that day we visited the homes of two more parents. They were not at the hospital. Their child was dead.

Two days prior, a gunman walked onto the playground at Cleveland Park Elementary School in Stockton, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Firing 106 rounds in three minutes, he killed five schoolchildren and wounded 29 others, including a teacher. He then pulled out a pistol and killed himself, ending the attack.

Time Magazine asked a question that sounds tragically familiar: “Why could … an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and armed robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?”

At the time, I represented Stockton in the State Senate. That January day as Patti and I drove north from Stockton on I-5, we decided that as Stockton’s Senator, I should introduce legislation to ban assault weapons in California. That legislation, the first assault weapons ban in the nation, eventually became the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which banned AK-47s, AR-15s, and many other similar weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties. Sen. Dianne Feinstein bravely took up the cause in Washington, and in 1994 Congress passed and President Clinton signed the federal assault weapons ban.

Unfortunately, that federal ban expired in 2004, once again allowing the sale of these weapons of war. After every tragedy we’ve had since — Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, and so many others — there was talk about changing our nation’s gun laws. Despite the introduction of dozens of bills, discharge petitions, filibusters, Congressional sit-ins, millions of letters, and even more phone calls nothing has broken the chokehold of the NRA and its followers in Congress who have done nothing but offer thoughts and prayers after each successive massacre.

But this time, after Parkland, it feels different. The students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland are showing courage in the face of unspeakable adversity and leading a national student movement for gun safety. I stand with them. I believe Congress should once again follow California’s lead and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, establish universal background checks on all gun sales in every state, and prohibit the possession of guns by felons, violent mental ill, and those who have a court restraining order.

This can be done without infringing on the Second Amendment, or the rights of hunters, sportsmen and enthusiasts. After all, federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the now-expired federal assault weapon ban on three separate occasions.

But I believe we should do more. Congress should also require social media companies to establish algorithms to identify individuals who are using social media to express violent and threatening tendencies. This information must be passed on to police agencies. Social media isn’t private: these companies already use data algorithms to identify user interests and sell that information to advertisers for profit. Why not use that same data to monitor possible threats of violence in the interests of public safety?

The NRA, and its allies in Congress seem to believe that providing for safe communities requires arming everybody, including teachers, with a concealed weapons — turning our schools, theaters, and concert venues into fortified bastions surrounded by armed guards toting assault weapons, and blaming the series of gun tragedies on only mental illness.

Sadly, President Trump’s actions don’t match his words. His recent budget proposal has proposed slashing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System’s budget by 16 percent. How can we prevent criminals and mentally unfit individuals from purchasing firearms if we are defunding the very program that is responsible for identifying them in the first place? He also proposes to cut over $250 million from our nation’s public mental health programs and the Department of Justice safe school program that funds proven violence reduction programs.

We can’t have the NRA solution: more assault weapons and concealed pistols, less funding for background checks, and steep cuts to mental health coverage. It’s a recipe for more massacres.

The students want the opposite: fewer assault weapons on our streets, better background checks for weapons purchases, and robust funding so that the mentally ill can get the help they need.

Our children and communities deserve nothing less.