Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
President Joe Biden: Nothing has been done. This time that can't be true. This time, we must actually do something. The question now is what will the Congress do?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was President Biden earlier this month addressing the gun violence epidemic taking so many lives in our country. On Sunday, a coalition of 20 senators, 10 Republicans, and 10 Democrats responded to the question.
President Joe Biden: What will the Congress do?
Melissa Harris-Perry: They announced reaching a deal on a package of gun legislation. While it falls short of many of the provisions the president had been supporting, including expanding background checks and assault weapons ban and raising the age requirement to purchase some guns, the deal does include one critical component, bipartisan support.
The participation of 10 Republicans suggests the group would have the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster and pass the Senate if it goes to a vote. President Biden tweeted, "It does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction. With bipartisan support, there's no excuses for delay. Let's get this done."
To discuss this weekend's bipartisan framework, let's talk with Jennifer Mascia, reporter for The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom reporting on gun violence in the US. Jennifer, thanks for joining us today.
Jennifer Mascia: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What was your reaction to this weekend's announcement that there is a bipartisan deal to at least do something?
Jennifer Mascia: I was surprised. I was surprised that they had 10 senators on board from the get-go. That is something I was not expecting. The provisions have-- they have some things that were very much sought after by Democrats, but they fall short in a number of ways. One of the things that surprised me the most was that there's a measure in there closing the boyfriend's loophole.
This is something that almost sunk the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization not that long ago, so the fact that Republicans were on board was surprising to me. What that does is it includes dating partners in lifetime gun bans for convicted domestic offenders.
Right now, the only people that it applies to are current and former partners, current and former cohabitants, people who have lived together, co-parents, and family members. The fact that this was in this framework was a shock because it has shut down negotiations in not just Violence Against Women Act, but several bills in the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I just want to be sure that I absolutely understand the, as it's called, boyfriend loophole. Prior to this, one would've had to have either been married, an official domestic partner, a cohabitant having lived together, but now we're talking about a proposal that will ensure that if a person has a protective order against someone, even if they haven't lived with them, or haven't been married to them that it also can create a lifetime ban on that person's capacity to have a weapon. Is that right? I just want to be sure I'm clear about it.
Jennifer Mascia: That is correct. That was really important because the majority of domestic violence is among dating partners, people who haven't lived together, people who don't have children together. A 1996 federal law implements a lifetime ban for people who have just been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, but that lifetime ban did not extend to dating partner so that left out about half of the convicted domestic abusers. It's said to be very effective at saving women and others' lives if abusers are separated from firearms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go to another key aspect of gun deaths that we sometimes don't talk about in the context of media where we do tend to focus on things like mass shootings. We are here today on the sixth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, 49 lives.
I think there's lots of reasons why media focuses our attention there, but we do know that death by suicide using firearms is actually the leading cause of firearm death, and that red flag laws seem to be helpful in that. What's going on with red flag laws in this agreement that was made over the weekend?
Jennifer Mascia: The framework, even though there's no text right now, the framework is said to include financial incentives for states that pass red flag laws. Right now there are 19 states that have red flag laws, and those are laws that allow police, family members, school officials, healthcare providers to petition a judge to temporarily disarm somebody who might be a risk to themselves or others.
Under this law, the remaining states would be in line for federal funding to get these programs started. Now, that's not a nationwide red flag law, that is not a nationwide system, a federal system that allows you to petition to disarm someone, so it does fall short in that way.
This is something Republicans have forwarded as an alternative to mandatory red flag laws in the past and incentivizing red flag laws is all well and good, but as we've seen with the Medicaid expansion which 12 states still have not adopted, incentives might not quite be good enough for nationwide adoption. There will be some holdouts, but if this does pass, red flag laws have been shown to be effective at reducing violence in a crisis, whether that's a mental health crisis, whether that is a mass shooting threat, and studies that are out of the two earliest adopters of red flag laws over 20 years now, Connecticut and Indiana, show that they were most effective in preventing suicide.
When somebody is in a mental health crisis and they are temporarily separated from their guns, the crisis passes, the suicidal instinct passes, and they're able to regain ownership of their firearms with no blemish on their record so they can still buy more guns in the future. It has been shown to be an effective tool most frequently with suicide, and it was intended to stop mass shootings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to dig in on red flag laws just one more step here. Part of it is that you have to be deemed high risk of potential harm to yourself or to others. Is there a concern that these red flag laws might disproportionately target, for example, people of color?
Jennifer Mascia: Gun law enforcement has been historically racist in America. The one time Republicans actually backed gun control was after Black Panther showed up armed at the California State House in the '60s. One of the reasons, the main reasons, the right to bear arms even exists was for white colonizers to subjugate indigenous and enslaved people. It's woven into the DNA of America which is one of the reasons it's so hard to change.
Gun reforms that rely on police to enforce them will always be used to disproportionately imprison people of color. Their sentences are higher, they're more likely to be shuffled into the prison pipeline and saddled with criminal histories from a very young age. Every subsequent penalty, particularly for gun charges, just are exponential.
Researchers have found that support for red flag laws is lower among people of color because they distrust that the system will be fair and they have every right to think so. One good thing is that red flag laws are civil. They are not criminal. They don't generate or add to a criminal record, but it is easy to imagine a scenario where a judge authorizes a search of someone's home under a red flag law and police find something or plant something that could trigger criminal charges.
These are not out of the realm of possibility in the United States. Examining these gun reforms through the lens of racial justice is something that's new to researchers and since 2020, I've seen a renewed commitment to do that including with red flag laws. There was one study a couple of years ago from Johns Hopkins of gun removal orders in Seattle, and it found that Black people were overrepresented by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 compared to the county population.
The study said the states that implement these laws, you have to look at the unintended consequences of what these laws do and the fact that people in over-policed populations will have more difficulty using them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talked about the framework, as it's written, providing a caret, a federal caret for red flag laws for the states. I'm wondering here about the stick which has been, historically, the gun lobby, is this caret enough to convince states that might be reluctant given the capacity of the gun lobby to wield quite a big stick?
Jennifer Mascia: Well, this is a framework as you said, and things will be whittled away. It already starts from a point of compromise, so to see it whittled away any more will be difficult for supporters of these policies, but what heartens me is that some of the senators who are on board, they're pretty sound Republicans, John Cornyn who has indicated willingness to fix the background check system in the past, but not go as far as Democrats want. He's a Texas Republican. You've got Thom Tillis from North Carolina, Roy Blunt from Missouri, these are pretty dug-in Republicans, and the fact that 10 of them are willing to stand up for this legislation, it gives me some hope. They're people who what the NRA says and does maybe doesn't affect as much, they're established in the Senate and they're established in their home states and that is heartening.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer Mascia, reporter for The Trace. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Jennifer Mascia: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the biggest challenges in trying to pass gun control reform, the outsized influence of the gun industry. We've been thinking a lot about these red flag laws. Last week, I spoke with Cole Wist, a former Republican state representative from Colorado who told me about the challenges he faced in trying to enact a red flag law there. Wist represented House District 37, which encompassed parts of Denver's suburbs.
As a Colorado state rep, you had an A rating from the NRA and yet, in 2018, you sponsored a red flag gun bill. Can you talk to me about what was the content of that bill?
Cole Wist: The event that triggered some inquiry by me as a legislator related to a very violent event that happened New Year's Eve of 2018, and it involved an individual who was known to law enforcement. He had made numerous threats, not only to law enforcement but also to some folks at The University of Wyoming. He certainly was known to his family to be someone who was struggling with mental illness and he had made a couple of calls to the Sheriff's Department to come out to his apartment on New Year's Eve, 2018. As a result of that interaction with law enforcement, the deputy sheriffs had made a decision to take this individual on on what's called an M1 Hold.
An M1 Hold in Colorado is an opportunity for law enforcement to remove a person from their home to take them in for a medical evaluation to determine whether or not they need some type of immediate care. The unfortunate thing here was as the officers were attempting to remove this individual on an M1 Hold, he barricaded himself in his apartment and as the deputy sheriff entered the apartment he ambushed them and tragically killed one of the deputies and injured a couple of others.
In the aftermath of that, my question as a legislator was, is there some public policy that we could look at to make sure that law enforcement who were putting in a very difficult situation, interacting with someone who was suffering from mental illness, volatile, and clearly had a lot of firearms in his possession, was there something that we could do to make sure that that interaction between law enforcement and that individual was more safe?
In the course of examining that issue and looking at it discovered that 19 states have passed extreme risk protection order laws, commonly known as red flag laws. One of the first states to pass a red flag law was Indiana. Indiana did that with a Republican governor, with bipartisan leadership, with both parties coming to the table to really talk about this not as a gun rights issue, but as a public safety issue and that's really how I approached as a legislator. Are there ways for us to move past the traditional fight about gun rights and gun control, which I think really has folks talking past each other rather than to each other and really focusing on this as a public safety issue and giving law enforcement and family members tools that they could use to keep themselves safe?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say I am often surprised that law enforcement aren't a more vocal group about this kind of legislation because it does seem that, in many ways, they might be literally on the front lines of needing to address the crises that occur when those who wish ill and are prepared to do ill are heavily armed.
Cole Wist: I think that's completely right. Look at the position we put law enforcement in every day. They really are on the front line of so many aspects of difficult circumstances in society. We expect them to be folks that enforce the law, that we expect them to be social workers. We expect them, in some cases, to be family counselors in a domestic violence situation. Many times law enforcement officers go into a domestic disturbance call not really knowing what's on the other side of the door, whether or not there are guns there, whether or not there are weapons there, whether or not there's someone there going through a serious mental health crisis.
That was really my primary motivation and that is trying to protect these men and women in uniform who are serving our community trying to keep us safe, and giving them a tool that I think they could use. I had support from the law enforcement community who came out and talked about the importance of this to keeping law enforcement safe, but I'd like to hear certainly more from law enforcement about why this is a useful tool.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick break, we'll be right back with more on The Takeaway.
We're back with former Republican Colorado state representative Cole Wist. Wist sponsored a red flag gun bill in 2018. He previously had an A rating from the NRA but was moved to action when a sheriff's deputy responded to a call and was shot and killed by someone with a history of mental illness. Wist sponsored a red flag gun law, which passed in the Colorado House but was struck down by the Republican-led state Senate at the time, and for Wist who left the Republican party this year, sponsoring the bill had consequences.
Cole Wist: I think there are folks within the gun lobby who feel like any discussion of a topic that relates to gun ownership is betraying the Second Amendment. To contrast that, I think there are those of us who believe that we can protect the Second Amendment but talk about this from a public safety standpoint, and really restoring the concept of responsible gun ownership, I think is an important one.
Too many times the focus in this debate is on objects and not on people and after every one of these mass shootings and in the more recent case of the tragedy in Texas, we again heard folks talking about red flags or mental illness or some type of mental health issue. My response to that is that if the issue is risk factors that are created by people, then let's talk about what those risk factors are. Let's be proactive and find ways to combat what I think are acts of domestic terrorism and ways to protect the public safety and, of course, we have to balance that with the Second Amendment but there has to be room for discussion and folks have to try to look for common ground.
My sin as a legislator and what the gun lobby did not appreciate here was my willingness to have conversations and to try to talk about this and find common ground with other folks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You say your sin, how were you punished for that sin?
Cole Wist: The gun rights groups actively campaigned against me in my reelection. They put flyers out suggesting that I was for gun confiscation and was against Second Amendment and that I was against folks having the ability to protect themselves which couldn't have been further from the truth, and if you look to my voting history on Second Amendment issues, I was a very strong supporter, and continue to be a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and folks' right to bear arms. At the same time, there are rights on the other side and that is the right to public safety and frankly, the right to life that folks in our community have.
If our leaders are truly representing everyone, I think it's incumbent on them to listen to folks on all side and to try to find common ground and try to find public policy that protects public safety.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm interested, as a lawmaker, how you experienced that resistance from the lobby. What I hear from you is that the lobby has the capacity to convince your constituents that your position is actually something different than what it is. I guess I'm wondering, as a lawmaker, what you see as the potential ways to have real conversations that can't be just mischaracterized by the lobby?
Cole Wist: There's just so much fear that grips this issue and when you can't even have a conversation about this, let's say you don't even introduce a bill, just have a conversation about this, you're accused of betraying the Second Amendment. There's a one recent example I can give you John Cornyn, senator from Texas after the Uvalde shooting had openly said he was willing to have conversations about legislation to address gun violence, and there immediate backlash.
There was a tweet that was sent out by a radio talk show host in Dallas who had said, "John Cornyn, you better not be doing this." Immediately, John Cornyn responded by saying, "Not going to happen." It was for me a real-time example of the power of the gun lobby and how quickly Republican members of Congress respond to that. Legislators are there to try to solve problems and to craft public policy to address issues but if some solutions are completely off the table, because you're afraid of the political repercussions for taking on a particular subject, then I don't think you're doing your job as a legislator. Frankly, that's a complete cop-out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are those who would say, "Yes, it matters to protect life in the perspective of addressing death by gunshot wound, but I was sent here to do a lot of things. If someone just introducing a red flag law is going to get me thrown out of office, then I've got 15 things I was elected to do, and I can't sacrifice those 15 things to this one thing." How would you respond to that?
Cole Wist: What's more important than public safety? We're talking about people's ability to send their kids to school and not have them be killed. We're talking about people having the ability to go to a supermarket and be safe, or to go to a movie theater and be safe. Let's say we weren't talking about shootings. Let's say we were talking about an epidemic of mass stabbings happening across the United States, I could certainly bet that Congress would be looking at this closely and trying to design policies to make sure that folks who were going through a serious mental crisis didn't have access to knives. As soon as you inject the word guns into this conversation, it really freezes the debate. Everyone goes to their political corner, doesn't talk to the other side, they do nothing. The shock and outrage that we experience after one of these horrible events fades after a couple of weeks, everyone just goes back to business as usual.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you feel any hope on this issue?
Cole Wist: I'm hopeful, but I remain skeptical of Republican seeming to fall back into the same old talking points on this issue. If we've gotten to the point in our country where 19 kids being shot in their fourth-grade classroom is an acceptable part of living in the United States, then I fear for our future. We can't become so numb to the shock and devastation that we're unwilling to act. I sincerely hope that this time will be different.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cole Wist is a former Colorado state representative. I so greatly appreciate you taking the time today.
Cole Wist: Thanks, Melissa. My pleasure to be with you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.