By Vince Echavaria
Leading a forum on gun violence and mental health in a city reeling from a mass shooting last month, Rep. Henry Waxman announced a proposed bill that he says would focus on gun safety and improve access to mental health services.
Waxman convened the July 15 forum in Santa Monica, where five people were killed and several were injured on June 7 when 23-year-old John Zawahri went on a shooting rampage before police fatally shot him in the library at Santa Monica College.
The congressman was joined at the event by Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor, state Sen. Ted Lieu and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who addressed issues of gun legislation, school safety plans and mental health services with four panelists. The panelists included Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a public agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks; Dr. Nancy Greenstein, chair of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees; and Suzanne Verge, Los Angeles chapter president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
In the wake of the Santa Monica incident and other mass shootings last year including Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn., Waxman said officials need to find out what the events had in common and take action to prevent more senseless violence.
“I am determined to do all I can to support the city, support the victims and make sure that the federal government is doing its part to make sure that this tragedy is not repeated,” Waxman said.
Waxman plans to introduce in Congress the Gun Violence Prevention and Reduction Act of 2013, which he said would provide a framework for improving gun safety, target research on serious mental illness, improve access to mental health services and reinforce existing government authorities to carry out public health research on gun violence.
As some federal legislators have attempted to introduce new gun laws, representatives of the gun industry have strongly opposed efforts to ban assault weapons and implement additional background checks. Waxman, a Democrat, said he will work with leaders from both parties to pass the bill into law.
Specifically, the bill calls for prohibiting the sale of firearm receiver castings or blanks that when completed function as firearm frames or receivers and are called “80 percent receivers,” as well as the sale of “homemade” assault weapon parts kits and machine gun parts kits.
Seabrooks said Zawahri, who was deeply troubled, faced mental health challenges and had an “obsessive fascination” with firearms, was found to have constructed a semi-automatic rifle with an “80 percent” receiver.
“I hope that with what occurred in this community on June 7 and the outcome of today’s discussion that there’s a larger call to action in our community and other communities, and in addition to changes in the law and changes in service offering it has us working together to coordinate and collaborate on an array of mechanisms to be brought to bear to examine and evaluate the cultural norms which I believe contribute to violence in our society,” she said.
Waxman released an investigative staff report finding that Zawahri took advantage of a “loophole” in the gun laws by purchasing a partially complete gun that he was able to assemble himself. The completed weapon is illegal to possess in California and Waxman said he is determined to close the loophole. The congressman noted that there is a thriving market on the Internet for sales of partially completed guns that circumvent federal and state background checks, and there are tutorials on how to turn such guns into functioning assault weapons.
Lieu said California currently has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation, including a ban on assault weapons, but he acknowledged that there are loopholes. To address the issue, the state Senate passed a bill that will ban any rifle with a detachable magazine and one that will ban high capacity magazines, Lieu said.
He agreed that legislators need to address the “gaping loophole” in the gun laws, adding that Zawahri’s method of assembling a weapon could be a roadmap for others. In relation to shooting incidents, Lieu said he authored Senate Bill 49 to ensure that K-12 schools are better prepared for the worst by having established emergency-response plans.
Asked about ways to mitigate the loophole problem, Verge said new laws are needed at both the federal and state levels, particularly at the federal level.
“There’s mental illness everywhere in this world, but what makes our country’s situation lethal is the easy access to guns,” Verge claimed.
Yaroslavsky said that to understand how mass shooting incidents take place and how to try to prevent them, officials need to focus on mental health legislation as well as gun legislation. He stressed that “people with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else,” but there are some circumstances where mentally ill individuals can experience crises that left untreated can lead to violence.
“Helping people with untreated mental illness through working together as a community is critical; the best services in the world will not succeed unless we make sure people access the help they need,” the supervisor said. “We must destigmatize mental illness so that this very common issue comes out of the shadow.”
O’Connor agreed that gun safety laws are just a part of the effort to reduce the risk of violence and said officials must also find ways to connect families to mental health services and provide help to at-risk children.
“Above all else, we must recommit to do our best to make sure that our youth are not isolated, that they know they are not alone, that they know we care about them, and that we as both a community and as individuals, are there to help and support them,” she said.
Of the approximately 45 million adults in the U.S. struggling with some type of mental illness, less than 40 percent receive the help they need, Hyde said. While people with mental illness between the ages of 16 and 25 are considered the most in need of services, they are the least likely to seek help, she said.
Hyde said the feeling of isolation is a big issue for young people and the role of peers can be critical for helping them believe that they are not alone. Federal programs such as Project Aware aim to ensure youths with mental or behavioral health issues are referred to receive the treatment and services they need, Hyde explained.
“We have come a long way in prevention, treatment and recovery support for mental and addictive disorders but we have a long way to go and we can do better as a country,” she said.
Waxman stressed that efforts to reduce incidents of violence across the country will need to take into account an array of issues including gun legislation, mental health and school safety.
“We have to be mindful of the fact that this is a complicated issue and we have to address it in a multifaceted way,” he said.