President Barack Obama proposed sweeping reforms Wednesday designed to curb gun violence and improve access to mental health care in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school massacre.
In his announcement, Obama leveraged a perceived shift in public opinion to encourage Congress to pass new limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Other measures, such as a streamlining of the federal background check system and the tracing of guns recovered in federal criminal investigations, were immediately implemented via 23 executive actions.
Locally, gunshop owners say the announcement will likely add fuel to the gun-buying “frenzy” spurred last month by talk of tighter regulations. Anti-crime and mental health advocates call the proposals an important step that could result in more resources to combat violence in South Jersey. Others, including the National Rifle Association, criticized a lack of attention to violence in the media.
“Even though locally we can try to do things, the conversation has to go national,” said Perry Mays, president of Stop the Violence Coalition in Atlantic County. “We need federal laws put in place to make sure folks are safe.”
Mays said the proposals could help give municipal and state police forces, as well as schools, the resources they need to keep guns off the street and out of the hands of criminals.
“I think the impact should be on illegal guns, not on those carrying guns that are for sports, hunting or safety,” he said.
Some are concerned that the new regulations may be too restrictive on legal gun owners.
Douglas E. Adams, a retired Buena Borough police chief and owner of Hidden Acres Firearms, said New Jersey already has strict gun laws. After 29 years in law enforcement, he said, very few “law-abiding gun owners” commit crimes.
The specter of harsher regulation will likely only increase the rush of people buying firearms, he said.
“I don’t believe banning guns or making guns harder to get is going to stop the violence that we’ve seen,” he said. “What happens if a sicko comes with one 30-round (magazine) or three 10-round mags? Is there a difference there?”
New Jersey banned ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons in 1990 but allows ammunition magazines with up to 15 rounds. One of the new proposals that will go before Congress is a 10-round limit for all magazines. Getting that limit and other measures passed, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, may be difficult for the administration.
The National Rifle Association promptly took issue with Obama’s proposals, and even supportive lawmakers said the president’s gun control measures face long odds in Congress.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the NRA said in a statement. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s office was non-committal to the president’s package, but signaled no urgency to act on the legislative proposals.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said ahead of Obama’s presentation that he didn’t know whether an assault weapons ban could pass the Senate, but said there are some measures that can, such as improved background checks.
“There are some who say nothing will pass. I disagree with that,” Leahy, D-Vt., told students at Georgetown University Law Center. “What I’m interested in is what we can get.”
New Jersey’s Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said he supports Obama’s proposals, calling them “common sense gun safety measures.”
“For too long, members of Congress have turned their backs on measures to prevent gun violence as the NRA turned up the heat to protect gun manufacturers,” he said, in a written statement. “This time must be different.”
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said the congressman has not had time to review the gun proposals and would not be issuing any statements.
For his part, the president vowed to use “whatever weight this office holds” to press lawmakers into action on his $500 million plan. He is also calling for improvements in school safety, including putting 1,000 police officers in schools and bolstering mental health care by training more health professionals to deal with young people who may be at risk.
The White House has signaled that Obama could launch a campaign to boost public support for his proposals. Nearly six in 10 Americans want stricter gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, with majorities favoring a nationwide ban on military-style, rapid-fire weapons and limits on gun violence depicted in video games, movies and TV shows, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
Pastor David Ennis, of Millville’s In His Presence Worship Center, said Obama’s proposals are an important first step toward quelling gun violence.
After his brother’s shooting death in 2006, Ennis went to local stores and bought ammunition without proper documentation to show how easily criminals can obtain it.
“I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that something has to be done here,” he said Wednesday. “We’re losing too many lives.”
But Ennis added that he’s also concerned about the impact of violent media, something Obama’s proposals don’t directly address.
“Most of what’s on TV today, and in arcade games, is about killing somebody,” he said. “We need to seriously sit down and think: ‘Why is this necessary?’.”
The impact of Obama’s proposals also reach beyond gun regulation to address gaps in the country’s mental health system, where he called for better access to treatment.
Gail Dembin, vice president of National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Atlantic-Cape chapter, said many people — whether they’re violent or not — slip through the cracks because of insufficient mental health care.
“Too many who are ill don’t have access and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “We’re glad they’re bringing this up and not just going after gun control.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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