TO: Interested Parties
DATE: March 14, 2018
RE: Six for Safety: The Top Six Takeaways from Today’s Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing
Today, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee met for a hearing titled “See Something, Say Something: Oversight of the Parkland Shooting and Legislative Proposals to Improve School Safety.” While Committee Republicans were largely content to discuss the “oversight” portion of the hearing– slamming Tom Brandon, Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and David Bowdich, Deputy Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), on their agencies’ handling of the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School– witnesses provided information critical to understanding law enforcement’s inability to address the United States’ gun violence epidemic.
The top six takeaways of note:
Congress must pass legislation to address bump stocks now. While ATF has initiated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to ban bump stocks, this process will be lengthy. While a months-long period for public comment and inevitable lawsuits drag on, bump stocks will continue to be readily available to the general public, including to those with dangerous intent, with not even a background check. Today, Acting Director Brandon said that while ATF is pursuing this process, “it will take time,” and “a law is clearly the best route” for public safety.
Extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws have broad support. Also known as gun violence restraining orders, ERPO laws allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to have an individual’s access to firearms temporarily removed if they are determined a danger to themselves or others. Versions of ERPO laws have been implemented in five states and passed in Florida just last week, with multiple states considering passage. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress to incentivize states to enact ERPO laws as well as to allow ERPOs to be accessed through federal courts. Today, Senators Graham and Blumenthal both pluggedtheir ERPO bill, with Bowdich calling the policy “sensible” and Brandon saying it would be “healthy for the public” and he would “welcome it.”
The United States has a gun violence research deficit that must be remedied. On today’s third panel, a witness from the Internet Association spoke about what internet companies and artificial intelligence can do to flag threatening or dangerous behavior online that may indicate future violence. What exactly artificial intelligence could do, the witness said, however, would “require more research.” While internet companies have plenty of research, when it comes to gun violence, the federal government does not. In 1996, a budget rider known as the “Dickey Amendment” was added, restricting the abilities of the Centers for Disease Control and later the National Institutes of Health; as a result, federal funding and performance of gun violence research has stalled for the past two decades. Put simply by Brandon: “The more you know, the more you can fix things– and improve public safety.”
FBI should have longer than three days to run a background check. Current law gives NICS examiners three business days if further research is needed on a gun buyer to determine if he or she is legally able to purchase a gun. Once those three days elapse, if FBI has not give the gun dealer in question a definitive yes or no, the sale mayproceed by default. Tragically, this loophole in federal law is now referred to as the “Charleston loophole,” as such a default proceed allowed the gunman at Emanuel AME Church– who should have been legally prohibited to buy a gun– to obtain his weapon. The FBI said in the year 2000 that were this period extended to give examiners more time to investigate, fewer guns would be sold to prohibited individuals; today, Bowdich agreed, saying “it would make sense.”
Restrictions holding back ATF and FBI from doing their jobs must be repealed. While some Committee members interrogated Brandon and Bowdich for law enforcement responding to crimes instead of preventing them, others highlighted the reasons why the hands federal law enforcement are often tied. Longstanding congressional budget riders prevent ATF from tracing guns using searchable records, meaning its Tracing Center must often “dumb down” transaction records they receive from federal firearms dealers. This, Brandon stated, was “not optimum, but it’s the law.” The panel also explained that background check records must be destroyed within 24 hours of a gun sale, hindering tracing abilities even further.
And while they’re at it, give ATF proper funding. ATF is the primary agency responsible for the investigation and prevention of federal firearms offenses, acts of arson and bombings, and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco, yet it consistently receives insufficient funding to carry out these duties. In 2016, nearly 140,000 federally licensed firearms dealers were operating in the United States, which ATF is supposed to regularly inspect. But with such a small workforce— ATF is smaller than the Broward County, Florida Sheriff’s Office– and not enough money– Brandon described the agency as “$20 million in the hole”– this is close to impossible. If Congress wants ATF to do its job effectively, it should remember that the agency “could do more” with more resources, as Brandon said.