Congressman Bobby Scott Talks Mental Health Measures, Gun Violence Prevention
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ANGIE MILES: We spoke with Congressman Bobby Scott, who represents Virginia's third district where the Walmart mass shooting occurred, for his thoughts on what needs to happen to stop these deadly recurring shootings. Welcome to the program, Congressman Scott.
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here, Angie.
ANGIE MILES: We thank you for joining us, and we have a few questions. We know that there was a study that came out last year from Northwestern Medicine. It showed that the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 prevented likely 10 public mass shootings during the 10 years it was in effect. And the study further asserted that if it had remained in effect, it might have averted another 30 mass shootings, and called...for the renewal of that ban. I know that's something that you've been working on, how likely is it to happen and what are the roadblocks?
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: We have to recognize the House passed an assault weapons ban earlier this year; it's over in the Senate, where it is not expected to do very well. But there's no one piece of legislation that will solve the problem. It's a multifaceted approach. After Sandy Hook, we formed a gun safety task force to see what we could do about these mass shootings. It became a democratic gun safety task force because we couldn't find any Republicans who wanted to join. But we came we met, we talked to experts, we've studied the research, and came up with a number of things that we could do, starting with the assault weapons ban.
We also recommended a limitation on the size of magazines. In these mass shootings, when they have to change magazines, that's an opportunity to intervene and with the stress involved, where they start fumbling with the magazine, and it's … an opportunity to intervene. If you have a 30-round magazine, you've gotten off 30 shots before you have to switch out. With a limitation of 10 or fewer [bullets], you have a better opportunity. Now, we limit the number of bullets that you can put in a magazine when you go duck hunting. But we don't have a limitation when people use military assault weapons for mass murders.
So, we have the assault weapons ban limit the size of magazines, strict background checks, to close all of the loopholes. There are so many loopholes that anyone who wanted to buy an assault weapon that couldn't pass a background check, it’s almost just as easy to get one without a background check as with a background check. … In addition to that, crime reduction initiatives generally, the prevention programs that reduce crime generally will reduce gun murders. And then an emphasis on mental health. It's interesting that just this week, the House has passed legislation dealing with mental health in the criminal justice system funding drug courts, suicide prevention and a lot of other things. While people are … discussing what to do about mental health, the House and Senate are actually passing legislation.
ANGIE MILES: I want to talk about mental health. That's a crucial part of this. But I want to go back to guns for a moment. In the absence of federal gun laws that are reasonable, and that can work, what is the problem? We know individual states have different gun laws, in effect to protect public safety. But what is the need for federal gun laws?
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: Well, the need for federal gun laws reflects the fact that if one state has strict gun laws, but the adjoining state has very lax gun laws, people just go next door, buy the guns and then come back into the state. Indiana and Illinois have that problem where you can very lax laws in Indiana. In New York, when Virginia's laws were much more relaxed than they are now, they would find a lot of guns at crime scenes in New York were purchased in Virginia. That's when the one gun a month [law] was so effective for the purposes of New York, because if you could only buy one gun a month, you couldn't load up the truck go up to New York and cash in and then come back load up again. You can only do that once, one gun a month, which means you couldn't really run a gun running operation without limitation.
ANGIE MILES: It's unfortunate that we even have to consider these kinds of things at all, or to consider the influence that people's adverse mental health conditions have on public safety. But we do have to consider it. Last night, you led the house in the passage of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Reauthorization [Act], tell us a little bit about what that is, and what you hope it will accomplish.
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: That deals with a lot of mental health problems within the criminal justice system. A significant number of people in jails, about half the people who are admitted to jails … have a history of mental health problems. About a third of people in prisons have a history of mental health problems. Those mental health problems should not be dealt with in jails and prisons, they ought to be dealt with in mental health facilities. And this gives funding to help in that area. It also funds mental health courts. A lot of problems occur when people with mental health problems have a revolving door in and out of the criminal justice system. Their problem isn’t criminal justice, it’s mental health. And so, the mental health courts deal with the mental health problem. And those have been very, very successful. But those are some of those things that can be done.
And if you want to talk about mental health … you need to talk about expanding Medicaid, which Virginia did a couple of years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have health insurance, that includes mental health coverage, because of the expansion of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, has gotten the number, the portion of America that does not have insurance at the lowest rate in the history of the United States. And because we have what's called mental health parity, if you have an insurance policy, subject to federal regulation, it has to include mental health coverage. So, we've done just about everything that can be thought of in the area of mental health … people have health insurance, they can get mental health coverage. When the problem is that people are going in and out of the jails and prisons, we can deal with them with the legislation that we passed yesterday.
ANGIE MILES: So it's [a] bipartisan effort put forth in the house, and you're hopeful that the Senate will pass it. You said that this is a complex issue. You can't say that enough. We haven't solved it yet.
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: Before you get off of mental health, I think it's important to note that we had … 600 mass shootings already this year. In most countries mass shootings are virtually unheard of…. There's nothing in the United States mental health status, that can explain 600 mass shootings. This is not a mental health crisis. This is a gun crisis. And we’re providing mental health [care], we've done a lot on that with the Medicaid expansion, Affordable Care Act, and funding for mental health and criminal justice. We've have done just about everything that can be done on the mental health area; we need to deal with guns. And … when you fail to recognize or even acknowledge that mass shootings are a gun problem, it's hard to make much progress.
ANGIE MILES: It's good to know that there are people like you who are working on this in a comprehensive way. I want to throw one other factor in here. Some people, like those at Northwestern who've been studying this, say… that the amount of pre-planning that it takes the calm thinking that it takes to carry out something like a public mass shooting is not something that a person who is mentally ill can necessarily do. But it is something that someone who just has a personality disorder can do. Is there any attempt legislatively, is there any funding is there any solution that you see that can address that … part of the problem?
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: That's one of the problems when you try to [pass] this off as a mental health problem. Most of the people, the people you've described, are not the people with diagnosable mental health concerns. And so having access to mental health … wouldn't even address the problem. …The important factor that makes 600 mass shootings possible in the United States … is easy access to guns.
ANGIE MILES: We, of course, are all very saddened by the losses from mass shooting in your district in Virginia in recent weeks, [and] throughout the country. And we all look forward to a day when we don't have to have these conversations. Hopefully we're on the right track and we can all see some improvement in some relief very soon. Thank you for taking time to speak with us about it.
CONGRESSMAN BOBBY SCOTT: Thank you.