October 3, 2004
Congress 101: If You Want Success, Don't Mess With the Gun Lobby
By DOROTHY SAMUELS
For devoted foes of gun control, September was a banner month. It opened with Congress ignoring pleas from every major national police group to let the hard-won 1994 ban on assault weapons expire, and ended last week with the House approving a loony measure repealing Washington's strict gun laws.
And that's not all. In between reinstating every hunter's sacred Second Amendment right to nail Bambi with an AK-47, and mischievously meddling in local affairs to pass a one-chamber bill to weaken public safety in the nation's capital, the National Rifle Association and its busy-beaver allies quietly scored another legislative coup - this one without even trying. This little-noted achievement - if you can call it that - relates to a glaring omission in the new initiative to prevent youth suicide just approved by the House and Senate, and awaiting President Bush's signature.
Named for Garrett Lee Smith, the 21-year-old son of Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, who killed himself in his college dorm room a year ago, the measure addresses a serious problem. Some 4,000 young Americans take their own lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is impossible not to admire Senator Smith's determination to wring something positive from his terrible personal tragedy by going public with his family's pain, and rallying colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get behind legislation to expand counseling services and other state efforts to identify and help youngsters at risk of killing themselves. There's no question that the $82 million the legislation authorizes over the next three years to improve early-intervention suicide prevention efforts, including on college campuses, will save some lives (albeit fewer than it might have, owing to a parental consent requirement right-wing House Republicans insisted upon that will inevitably deter some troubled kids from getting timely help).
But the bill's positive aspects notwithstanding, it fails to address perhaps the most salient risk factor for troubled young people - the presence of a gun in the home. This avoidance is particularly frustrating given the scant chance that Congress will revisit the teenage suicide issue anytime soon, and the fact that it doesn't take a brain surgeon - just a lowly editorial writer - to see a couple of common sense steps that Congress could have taken to protect kids, and didn't take.
Firearms figure in about half of all youth suicides, and by now it is neither secret nor speculative that having a firearm at home significantly increases the chance of a depressed adolescent ending his or her own life. Nor should it come as a surprise that states with the highest rates of gun ownership also have the highest overall suicide rates.
Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce the deadly toll would be to insist that parents do a better job of locking up guns. Even as Congress was deliberating over fine print of the antisuicide bill, a telling new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Annenberg Public Policy Center appeared in the Aug. 4 Journal of the American Medical Association. This study found an 8.3 percent decrease in suicide rates among 14- to 17-year-olds in 18 states that have enacted some form of child access prevention, or C.A.P., law, making it a crime to store guns carelessly in a way that permits easy access by kids.
Why are there no provisions in the antisuicide bill creating federal incentives to encourage states without C.A.P. laws to adopt them, following the approach successfully used to nudge states to tighten their drunken driving rules? Why does the new legislation omit the simple life-saving step of requiring gun dealers to provide an effective safety lock with every weapon sold?
When I directed these questions to a couple of the measure's supporters, they politely suggested I must be living on another planet. As it was, they had to accept the damaging parental consent language to get the bill through the House. Including the sort of child-protective gun provisions I was talking about would have invited rabid reflexive opposition from the gun lobby, very likely dooming any progress at all on the teenage suicide issue. "The power of the lobby is tremendous, and anything hinting of gun control, however sensible, is radioactive, especially in the House," explained Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a lead Democratic sponsor of the teenage suicide bill along with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and a strong gun control supporter.
It is hard to quarrel with Senator Dodd's political assessment. But what a grim reflection on the present climate in Washington that small, reasonable steps like mandatory trigger locks cannot be openly raised and debated even in the context of trying to prevent children from committing suicide. Fear of the gun lobby is such, the subject never came up.