Gun violence from Trenton to Newtown: our challenge to save our children

By Sen. Shirley K. Turner

The Newtown, Conn., shooting is the real eye opener for America.  No community is immune from the epidemic of violence.  Whether an urban gang shooting or a mass shooting in a suburban neighborhood, we are losing too many youth by bloodshed. 

As reported by the Centers for Disease Control, homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth; in 2010, 82.8% of victims ages 10 to 24 were killed with a firearm.  Our attention should be focused now on reducing violence everywhere. 

The problem, however, is complex and requires a multifaceted approach that improves education about mental illness, strengthens the mental health and addictions safety net, and prevents illegal access to guns and ammunition. 

Since 2007, I have sponsored legislation (S1276 and S2453) to establish Mental Health Courts throughout New Jersey. 

This specialized court replicates our successful drug courts, which have diverted non-violenct offenders into drug treatment and away from prison to help them become productive citizens.

Unfortunately, individuals with mental illness often find themselves in the criminal justice system before being diagnosed. Mental Health Courts can identify individuals who need services and provide access to programs to treat the underlying issues contributing to violent or criminal behavior.

As parents, teachers, and society begin to understand mental illness, individuals will seek treatment before an episode becomes a crisis.  We need to lift the stigma of mental illness and educate parents and teachers about symptoms that may signal a mental health problem. 

Just as we go to the doctor for the flu, we should have the same level of assurance that we can speak to our doctors about mental health.  The earlier mental illness is diagnosed and treated, the greater the likelihood of positive social and emotional outcomes. 

In addition to improving the mental health safety net, I have proposed legislation to only allow legal gun owners to purchase ammunition (S2456), crack down on “straw” purchases of ammunition, and prohibit online purchases of ammunition.  Unfettered access to ammunition makes it too easy for individuals carrying illegal firearms to load up and terrorize our communities. 

I am also researching the need to require more stringent background checks by reporting individuals ineligible to possess a firearm due to mental illness.  Federal law prohibits any person from selling or transferring a firearm or ammunition to anyone who is disqualified for possessing a firearm for mental health reasons. 

However, state and federal databases that are used to conduct background checks are incomplete and not current because these individuals go unreported.  We must close the loopholes in the laws that provide easy access to illegal guns and ammunition. 

The problems of violence cannot be solved by New Jersey alone.  Our federal government must limit illegal access to guns by reinstating the ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines, requiring background checks for all firearm and ammunition purchases, and requiring all states to report all information necessary for thorough federal background checks.

New Jersey, with the second strictest gun laws in the nation, experiences a flood of illegal weapons that are bought out-of-state without proper scrutiny.  Without federal action, our efforts to reduce gun violence are only as strong as the weakest state’s gun laws. 

Our efforts are incomplete if we fail to target other factors that are desensitizing our children to the value of human life.  Over-exposure to murders and drugs on television and in movies, video games, and music are contributing to the violence contagion.  The entertainment industry that is programming our children with violence must be part of the solution to reduce violence.

However, parents or guardians must be responsible for monitoring the programs and movies their children watch, the games they play, and the music they hear.  The constant barrage of violence that is glorified in entertainment is strongly correlated to aggression and violent behavior.

The discussion on violence must also include the possible serious side effects of off-label use of psychotropic drugs in children.  As a former member of the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee, I questioned the dangers presented to foster children from the off-label use of psychotropic drugs.  Studies suggest that these mind-altering drugs are overprescribed and parents are unaware about possible side effects, including suicidal and violent urges. 

My bill, S1512, would require parents to provide informed consent when their children are prescribed psychotropic drugs.  Our parents need information to help them make sound decisions and identify problems with any medications that their children are prescribed. 

Violence is so prevalent that parents everywhere are questioning whether their children will return home safely at the end of the school day.  As a mother and grandmother, I completely understand that fear. 

Protecting our children is our first priority; we must put the fears of parents and children to rest without turning our streets, schools, colleges, movie theaters, malls, workplaces, and places of worship into armed camps. 

The measures that I have proposed will not eliminate violence, but doing nothing is no longer an option.  The public must pressure President Obama, the Congress, and all elected officials, as well as the media and the entertainment industry, to provide the needed reforms. 

Hopefully, this time, the media will continue to focus on the gun violence crisis long after the last victim is buried.  Enough is more than enough.

Sen. Shirley Turner, D-15, Lawrence, and Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-20, Elizabeth, announced plans last month to introduce a bill to establish a commission to study violent trends, and develop methods to address the problem.

"I’m an undertaker by trade, so when I bury somebody, they don’t come back."
—Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato