By MATTHEW STOKES, contributor
U.S. Senator Doug Jones of Alabama made his debut speech in the Senate recently. The topic at hand was, as one might expect, guns and gun violence, with Senator Jones ostensibly seeking to bridge a partisan divide on the issue. He renewed calls for the banning of bump stocks, while joining with his Republican colleague John Cornyn in calling for a much more streamlined process for background checks. Jones critiqued the rhetoric, if not so much the policy positions of the National Rifle Association while also noting that many on the political left have often unfairly vilified the NRA membership and other, peaceful gun owners.
Senator Jones implored his colleagues in the Senate to work towards bipartisan consensus on legislation that would reduce gun violence. The recent March for Our Lives further highlights the demand for action on gun violence. To that end, there are two things Senator Jones, and the rest of the Senate, could do to reduce gun violence in the United States. First and foremost, the Senate could encourage the Department of Justice in its efforts to see that federal prosecutors bring the full weight of the law to bear on straw buyers who in turn see their weapons used in violent crime. Straw buyers are citizens who legally purchase a weapon and then knowingly hand it to another person who is unable, for whatever reason, to purchase that weapon. If straw buyers knew that their own freedom was in legal jeopardy for putting a weapon in the hands of a friend or family member, it stands to reason that they would be much less likely to aid and abet those in their own lives who would commit violent crime. To date, prosecutors around the country have shown a startling reluctance to pursue such cases.
While many of these straw buyers are sympathetic cousins, girlfriends and neighbors, law enforcement should send a strong message to those who would put guns in the hands of those who are not legally allowed to possess them. A local example brings the issue home. The shooter in the recent Huffman High School shooting is being held on charges of not only manslaughter, but also on charges of certain persons forbidden to possess a pistol. This suggests the shooter was below the minimum pistol purchase age of twenty-one. Senator Jones and, perhaps more more importantly state and local lawmakers, should encourage law enforcement at all levels to pursue those who put a weapon in the hands of this young man and all others individuals who commit crimes with weapons that they are not allowed to lawfully possess. While horrific school shootings justifiably garner the nation’s attention, the bulk of gun violence comes in connection with violent crime. Prosecutors should be encouraged and enabled to pursue those who illegally provide weapons in such cases.
As it concerns awful incidents such as the Parkland school shooting, Senator Jones should join with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida in a bipartisan effort to restrict gun access from those who have demonstrated that they are a danger to themselves to others. This legislation would offer Department of Justice grants under the Extreme Risk Protection Order Program to states that passed legislation allowing law enforcement or concerned family members to petition a court to temporarily suspend an individual’s gun rights. Similar in scope to the temporary restraining orders that are enacted in personal disputes, these gun violence restraining orders could go a long way to reducing a disturbed individual’s capacity to harm themselves or others. This could lead to positive outcomes in regards to suicide, domestic violence and the mass shootings that have plagued the nation in recent years. Given the myriad ways in which authorities missed the numerous warnings signs that the Parkland school shooter presented an imminent danger to himself and others, such a restraining order, if properly administered, could have removed the weapons from his hands, while saving lives and have zero impact on the gun rights enjoyed by millions of peaceful Americans.
Senator Jones is right to call for bipartisan efforts to reduce gun violence, and given his roots in this state as an avid hunter and outdoorsman, Alabamians of all political backgrounds should give him an opportunity to lead on this issue. The above proposals would directly target a great deal of the gun violence in the nation. Prosecution of straw purchases would go further to limit gun violence, particularly violence connected to criminal activity. Gun violence restraining orders would give concerned families and authorities a tool specifically designed to remove firearms from those who pose a threat to themselves or those around them. Both steps would go a long way towards reducing gun violence in a number of ways, and both steps should garner support for concerned leaders in both parties.
Senator Jones is right. Now is the time to act, and he would do well to consider and purse these two initiatives.
Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].