New Jersey would declare violence a public health crisis and establish a commission to study its causes under a bill announced by state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) on Wednesday.
The measure also would expand mental health programs and recommend that the federal government adopt gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown, CT massacre.
“We want to do whatever’s possible to avoid something like that,” Lesniak said.
The mass shooting appears to have opened a window of opportunity for proposals to increase gun control and funding for mental health services, judging by the number that have been introduced nationwide.
While New Jersey already has one of the most stringent gun laws in the country, bill supporters said there are other ways to expand the state’s efforts to prevent violence.
State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer), a bill cosponsor, said, “We know that we have a grave problem in this country with guns, but what is most important about this legislation is that it is a multifaceted approach to violence.”
That approach can be seen in the interrelated ways the bill addresses violence, especially gun violence.
For example, it seeks to identify mentally ill people snared in the criminal justice system, steering them toward treatment rather than punishment. That, in turn, should help reduce recidivism, breaking the "swinging door" cycle that returns ex-offenders to the criminal population within a few months or a few years of their release.
A permanent commission, meanwhile, would make it possible for the state to explore the root causes of violence and keep attention focused on the issue, Lesniak said.
And by beefing up funding for involuntary committals, the bill wants to make it easier to identify and treat unstable, potentially violent individuals before they can harm society or themselves.
“We know that it takes more than just law enforcement. We need more mental health services for those people who are not receiving it now,” Lesniak said.
Salaam Ismial, director of the United Youth Council, has supported declaring violence a public health crisis for 20 years. He noted the August shooting at an Old Bridge Pathmark, where an employee armed with an assault rifle killed two coworkers and himself.
“This is only the first step,” Ismial said of the bill introduction, adding that it will take intensive lobbying for the measure to become law. Ismail, whose organization advocates for the interest of urban youths, said parents, celebrities, and the media should all focus on heading off violence.
“Everybody has to play a role, and that’s the real deal,” said Ismail, an Elizabeth resident.
New Jersey is rated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as having the second-strongest controls on guns in the country, after California. However, “to a great extent, they are rendered somewhat ineffective,” by guns purchased in other states and brought to New Jersey, Lesniak said.
The bill urges the federal government to reinstate its ban on assault weapons and expand background checks to all gun sales and transfers.
“This is a problem every day in this country that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in the world, so there’s got to be something that we have to do about it that we’re not,” he said.
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