A child crosses under caution tape at Robb Elementary School on May 25, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday examined the public health effect gun violence has on children.
“Guns are killing our kids at a devastating rate,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the committee, said in his opening statement.
The hearing followed the May 24 mass school shooting in which 19 children and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. In another shooting on May 14, a white supremacist went to a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
The recent mass shootings have spurred a bipartisan U.S. Senate group to come up with a framework for gun related legislation, which Durbin said he was glad Democrats and Republicans have forged an agreement.
Durbin said the leading cause of death for children is firearms, and that there should be a public health study on gun violence. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2020 that the leading cause of death among children ages 1 through 18 involved a firearm. That amounted to 3,219 deaths.
Senators during the hearing praised several parts of the framework that the bipartisan group — made up of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats — developed. They are now writing up legislative text for the framework.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, said he was pleased that Congress is looking at addressing mental health and that “school safety should be a top priority.”
The framework would provide billions in funding for mental health programs, as well as allocate funds for school safety. The bipartisan group has not hashed out the exact funding levels.
“Mental health issues are also a root cause of many tragedies we see across the country,” Grassley said. “Any legislation proposed in the Senate that is looking to impact change must include resources to address mental health.”
Grassley told Iowa reporters Wednesday he isn’t surprised that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had spoken favorably of the bipartisan framework. “But McConnell hasn’t talked to me, I don’t know how he’s judged it, I doubt if he’s got any more access to text than I do,” Grassley said. “And I’m gonna wait until I get the text to decide what I’m going to do. And I think I should do that.”
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said the entire community suffers from gun violence, including his own.
“I’m tired of seeing sidewalk shrines with teddy bears and candles all around my neighborhood,” he said.
Children and gun violence
One of the witnesses, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Moira Szilagyi, said when children experience gun violence, they can become hypervigilant, and it’s harder for them to function and perform well in school after trauma.
Szilagyi said gun violence needs to be treated like a public health issue and Congress should allocate $60 million for firearm injury and mortality prevention research, with $35 million dedicated to the CDC and $25 million to the National Institutes of Health.
“Federally funded public health research has a proven track record of reducing public health-related deaths, whether from motor vehicle crashes or smoking,” she said. “This same approach should be applied to increasing gun safety and reducing firearm-related injuries and deaths, including suicides.”
One of the witnesses, Max Schachter of Coral Springs, Florida, said not all schools are properly secured. He pushed for “the creation of a federal school safety clearinghouse, a streamlined one-stop shop for best practices, resources, and grant programs related to school safety.”
Schachter lost his son, Alex, in the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018, in which 14 students and three staff members were murdered.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said she supports the framework provision that would close the “boyfriend” loophole, as it would protect women from intimate partner violence.
More than half of all intimate partner murders are committed with firearms, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
The framework would close the boyfriend gun purchase loophole by requiring convicted domestic violence abusers and those subject to domestic violence restraining orders to be included in background checks, including “those who have or have had a continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.”
One of the witnesses, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, said domestic violence calls can be some of the deadliest scenes that officers show up to.
She added closing the boyfriend loophole would not only protect people from intimate partner violence, but also protect law enforcement.
“(Domestic violence) is troubling, it’s real, and it’s impacting not just the children in our community, but our officers are being traumatized and shot as well,” Williams said.
The framework would also provide funding to states to establish red flag laws, which allow the courts or law enforcement to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is distressed and poses a harm to either themselves or someone else.
It would also require gun buyers under 21 to undergo a background check that includes a review of juvenile and mental health records.
— Katherine Kealey contributed to this report.
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