U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

June 25, 2022

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It’s been a week of extremes on Capitol Hill. On the positive side, Congress took one step forward by breaking a decades-long logjam to pass substantial gun safety legislation that will help save lives.

On the other side, on Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that expands the definition of Second Amendment gun rights and takes away the rights of local communities to determine their own public safety needs.

One step back.

On Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever. It is a tragic moment for civil rights in the United States when far-right justices on the highest court think it is acceptable to take away the rights of millions of individuals and hand them over to state legislators. The court overturned 50 years of precedent by revoking the rights established in Roe v. Wade, as well as Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Two steps back.

This is the first time I can remember that the court purposefully revoked rights from Americans, rather than expand them. Make no mistake, these court decisions will have dire consequences nationwide.

Next week, I will have my expanded thoughts for you on Dobbs v. Jackson. For now, some good news on gun safety. But let me start with the grim context.

Two hundred and seventy nine mass shootings have taken place on U.S. soil in 2022. Defined as a single incident with four or more people shot, 10 of these took place in our own state of Maryland. The most recent took place barely over a week ago when two men and two women were shot and injured in a Baltimore drive-by shooting. One of the most deadly this year was June 9 in rural Smithburg. Three men lost their lives that day and three others were injured.

Gun violence has plagued our nation for far too long. We cannot allow ourselves to continue living in fear of the next time someone will pick up a gun at a school, grocery store, church or on a street corner, and tear our lives, families and communities apart.

After the horrific shooting in Uvalde where innocent children were murdered, the U.S. Senate finally acted. Congress had to do something substantive to help stem the epidemic that is scarring our communities daily.

Not all the shootings make headlines, but they do destroy lives and cripple communities. For these victims and their families, I was proud to vote Thursday for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Friday and the president will soon sign it into law.

This important legislation moves us forward and breaks the decades-long gridlock on gun safety. It is not as comprehensive as I would have liked, but it will save lives.

The bill will boost funding for community violence intervention and prevention initiatives, like those underway in Baltimore. It strengthens protections for victims of domestic violence by adding convicted domestic violence abusers to background checks. It creates a new source of funding for states to implement “red flag” laws, which help to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals who should not have access to a firearm. It cracks down on criminals who try to evade licensing requirements and makes clear which gun sellers need to register, conduct background checks and keep appropriate records. It also strengthens the background check process for those under 21 seeking to buy firearms, by ensuring that officials have access to juvenile and mental health records.

We also provide much-needed mental health resources to communities by providing funding to improve and expand access to mental health services. Among other provisions, it includes telehealth services for students with Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This was a key priority for the Senate Finance Committee Bipartisan Mental Health Working Group that I led with Republican Senator John Thune, as well as our MENTAL Health for Kids and Underserved Act, which was a source for some provisions in the bill approved this week.

I believe strongly that increasing resources for mental health services are crucial, but we cannot conflate mental illness and gun violence. Not every instance of gun violence is connected to mental illness and not every mental health crisis prompts the use of a weapon.

To that end, the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear that our children need additional mental health resources offered in school. We also must significantly increase the pipeline of individuals willing to serve in those school-based mental health service positions. The legislation Congress passed this week addresses those challenges head-on. It provides supplemental funding to train new school-based mental health service providers and provide students with the specific mental health care services they require. While not able to fully meet the needs of every school currently without a counselor or mental health professional, this bill will make significant strides to ensure that a significantly greater percentage of students have access to mental health care services.

The legislation we passed in the Senate will save lives and help keep our communities safer. But there are many more reasonable steps a majority of Americans, including gun owners, support that we can and should take, consistent with the Second Amendment rights. I will continue to strongly advocate for the establishment of universal background checks for all gun purchases, renewing the assault weapons ban and prohibiting high-capacity magazine clips. We also should raise the minimum age to 21 to buy assault weapons, until we pass a new ban on civilian purchases of these weapons of war.

As I have mentioned previously, the Senate also should confirm the nomination of Steve Dettelbach to be the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The ATF has not had a permanent Senate-confirmed director since 2015, and the agency is sorely overdue for permanent leadership who can carry out its critical mission to stem the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, among other important priorities.

On Tuesday, we will mark the solemn, fourth anniversary of the deadly shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. In this case, the gunman had been angered by an article the newspaper had published in 2011 and had threatened the newspaper for several years prior to his attack on June 28, 2018. That afternoon, he opened fire on the busy office space, killing Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters.

These people had lives. They had families. They had futures. They are missed daily. What occurred at the Capital Gazette was a senseless tragedy, and an act of violence that should never have been allowed to occur.

Reducing gun violence is an urgent necessity, made more challenging by the Supreme Court, which has taken steps again this week to expand the definition of Second Amendment rights. But gun violence is not an impossible problem; there are solutions.

This week, the U.S. Senate took a step in the right direction to reduce gun violence in this country. Senators still have policy differences, but for the safety of the American people, we were able to set some of those aside and take action that will save lives.

Thank you to all of the Marylanders who have called my office in the last week and over the last few months (and years) urging me to support strong gun safety legislation.

And thank you for sharing a few minutes of your Saturday with me. More to come.

Stay safe.

Ben Cardin