By Andy Cohen
On Dec. 2, 2015, terrorists opened fire at a holiday party at the San Bernardino Regional Center, killing 14 people and wounding 21 others. That same day, several other people were killed in gun attacks in Houston and Savannah, Ga. A week prior, a gunman killed three people, including a police officer, in an attack at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs where the gunman held several people hostage during a six-hour standoff. On Dec. 3, U.S. Rep. Scott Peters took to the floor of Congress.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough. Moments of silence are not enough,” Peters said in his floor speech. “Maybe, Mr. Speaker, instead of a moment of silence the American people can get a moment of action; a moment of action that might keep their community from being next. Expressions of sympathies and condolences are nice, but ultimately are empty.”
A week later, Peters again took to the floor, and over the course of four days read the names of the victims of mass shootings across the country since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 elementary school children and six adults. Talk is cheap, and Congress should act, he said.
“I wanted to remind people that we need to take action on this,” Peters said in an interview with San Diego Community Newspaper Network. “The President did everything he could to enforce existing laws, but it’s still going to leave a hole that Congress has to address.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, President Obama introduced a series of executive actions that will expand background checks, close loopholes in the law that would now require sellers who conduct their business on the Internet and at gun shows to be licensed, and therefore require them to conduct background checks prior to selling a firearm, and to provide additional personnel to the FBI to be able to more quickly process those background checks. Obama’s actions will also provide additional funding for mental health care.
Last week, Obama extended an invitation to 15 members of Congress, including Peters, to meet at the White House along with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to preview the executive actions. “We don’t want to give the impression that we’ve solved the problem,” Peters said, indicating that additional action by members of Congress is still necessary.
“How do we keep this going? How can we improve the laws?”
In a preemptive criticism, House Speaker Paul Ryan released a statement excoriating Obama’s actions. “This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it,” Ryan said. “The president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will.”
“It takes a lot of onions to criticize the president for strengthening existing laws,” Peters said in response. Congressional Republicans have insisted that enforcement of the laws already on the books is all that’s needed, and that no other actions should be taken to curb gun violence.
“Enforcement of existing laws is exactly what President Obama is trying to do. Ninety percent of Americans think expanding background checks is a reasonable thing to do,” Peters said.
Opponents of Obama’s measures have decried them as “illegal and unconstitutional.” Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed: “The president has waged war on the Constitution.”
Asked if he believed Obama’s executive actions were within the purview of his authority, Peters, a lawyer himself, insisted they were. Attorney General Lynch was directly involved, he said, and the actions were issued to give direction to prosecutors in order to help them more effectively follow the law. “Nothing about this should be controversial,” Peters said.
On the mental-health provisions, Peters noted that his Republican colleagues have insisted that mental illness is the leading cause of gun violence, and he challenged them to put their money where their mouths are and fully back the initiative to de-stigmatize mental illness and bolster efforts to provide treatment. “Are Republicans willing to back up their notion that this is all about mental health? That gun violence is not separate from mental health?”
“This remains very important to people,” Peters said, acknowledging that it’s highly unlikely that any gun safety measures will be taken up by this Congress.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.