Creating stricter gun laws in the wake of last week’s Florida school shooting can still ensure both personal safety and the right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment, said U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.
The shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by a 19-year-old that resulted in the deaths of 17 people and the issue of gun control were among several topics the senator discussed Monday morning during a stop in Columbus at The Republic.
“I support the Second Amendment. But we can also seek safety — because when our children go to school, moms and dads should be able to know they are safe at school, and they can focus on learning and come home safe at the end of the day,” Donnelly said.
The senator said two pieces of legislation that failed previously would be a good starting point for providing greater safety.
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One deals with making the rules for background checks equal for buying a gun, whether at a gun show at a fairgrounds or at a retail store. The purpose was to be able to check for gun buyers with felonies and histories of mental illness.
“With rights come responsibilities,” Donnelly said.
The second bill he’d like to see passed concerns people on the U.S. watch list for terrorism. Those on the list, who are not allowed to board flights, should not be able to buy guns, Donnelly said.
“That seems about as basic as it can get,” the senator said.
Not only would Donnelly like to see those two bills passed immediately, but he also said there’s no need for bump stocks. Those are gun stocks that make rifles fire more rapidly.
“They were used to turn guns into machine guns,” he said.
While guns have gripped the nation’s attention, so has the issue of drug addiction, particularly the impact of opioid abuse.
Donnelly noted that overdoses from opioids and other drugs killed more than 60,000 people last year — more than the 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed during the eight years the country had troops directly involved in the Vietnam War.
“This is so destructive to our state, to our country,” Donnelly said, noting that the epidemic touches all people regardless of economic status, religion or other socioeconomic factors.
The senator said it’s important to continue educating people about the dangers of opioids, providing more funding for addiction treatment services and pushing for changes that reduce access to opioids.
Donnelly noted that the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA), which was signed into law in 2016 by President Barack Obama, changes prescribing practices by doctors to prevent overprescribing pain medication. The senator credited the Indiana Legislature for passing a law limiting prescriptions to seven days. Those with chronic pain situations have to work with their doctors on care plans, he said.
Donnelly noted that Opana, generically known as oxymorphone and an opioid prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, has been taken off the market. Endo International PLC, the maker of the drug, voluntarily agreed to pull it last year after discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Some counties across state, including Jennings, have sued prescription drug manufacturers, claiming they encouraged greater use despite knowing the addiction dangers, the senator said.
“We are going to continue to push to see changes in how these products are handled,” Donnelly said.
Indiana also should see more money to help in its fight against drug addiction, with multiple sources of federal funding helping with education, drug treatment and opioid antidote doses, he said.
The 21st Century Cares Act passed last year provides $11 million to Indiana, the senator said, while the federal budget allocates $100 million to the state and the renewal of Medicare provides about $80 million for Indiana, he said.
As with the issues of gun control and opioid abuse, the senator said he would like to see more progress made regarding immigration reform, particularly as it relates to a solution to the issue of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Donnelly said he believes a win-win solution can be achieved for people who want stronger borders and immigration policies, and those who want children brought here illegally by their parents to have a path to citizenship.
Columbus-based diesel engine maker and power company Cummins Inc. has a lot of employees working in the city and elsewhere in the United States who are from foreign countries and want to remain here, but are facing visa and other immigration problems, Donnelly said as an example.
The country needs strong, secure borders to ensure safety, the senator said, but communities such as Columbus are stronger because of the talents brought to the city from other countries.
“How do we make this a win-win for our country, that these young people can stay and we also can have very strong, very secure borders?” Donnelly said.
He and other senators thought they had a bipartisan solution last week, but the bill fell short, garnering 54 votes instead of the 60 needed.
The bill provided strong border security, a 12-year pathway to citizenship for the DACA children and didn’t reward the parents by changing their status, Donnelly said.
“That seemed to be a reasonable way to approach this,” Donnelly said. “Those were the path marks the president laid out. We tried to meet them and I think somewhere along the way their goalposts changed. I’m very hopeful that the president will take ‘Yes’ in this area.”
Some of the issues the senator has worked on have had strong support from Democrats and Republicans. One is a bill that would require amateur athletics governing bodies to report sexual abuse allegations immediately to local or federal law enforcement, or a child welfare agency designated by the Justice Department.
A person covered by the bill who fails to report could be charged with failure to report child abuse.
That legislation, which has passed in the Senate, comes at a time when sexual abuse is in the headlines in the wake of the sentencing of Larry Nasser, the former USA Gymnastics doctor, to 40 to 175 years in prison for abusing more than 150 girls and women.
Purpose of the legislation is to protect the child and initiate a police investigation right away. Past practices by USA Gymnastics involved the athlete making the accusation to meet face-to-face with the accused, Donnelly said. Those situations involved unequal relationships that made the athletes fear that their Olympic dreams would be ruined for making the accusation, he added.
Another bipartisan bill that Donnelly introduced with U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and which has been signed into law by President Donald Trump, provides more mental health resources for law enforcement officers.
When officers start a shift, they don’t know what they’ll encounter or whether they’ll return home alive, the senator said.
Sometimes a call an officer responds to can be traumatizing, Donnelly said. He recalled an officer who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after handling a call that involved the killing of a child.
The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act:
Authorizes grants for peer mentoring pilot programs.
Instructs the federal Justice and Health and Human Services departments to develop resources for mental health providers based on mental health challenges faced by law enforcement officers.
Studies the effectiveness of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks.
“What we want to make sure is that we’re there for them,” Donnelly said.
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"When our children go to school, moms and dads should be able to know they are safe at school."
— U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana