Get it done. That was our attitude at the Massachusetts State House in the late 1990s.
I know there is no one easy answer to stopping the mass shootings like those committed by mentally ill young men in Arizona, Colorado, and most recently Connecticut. Certainly expanding mental health services is critical. But there are common-sense gun control policies like those adopted here in Massachusetts nearly 15 years ago which would make a huge difference. What it takes is the political will in Washington to get it done.
In 1998, Democrats and Republicans worked together here to pass one of the toughest gun control laws in the country. I was proud to sign it. We banned assault weapons and “Saturday night special” handguns, established a new more stringent licensing category for large-capacity weapons, made sure gun dealers did background checks, and required gun owners to safely store their weapons.
A broad coalition was painstakingly built to generate sufficient political support. It included the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Public Health Association, the League of Women Voters, the Boston Bar Association, and the law enforcement community. I particularly remember district attorneys, state and local police officers, as well as many federal law enforcement officers, advising me that this type of legislation would significantly reduce gun violence in our state. Then-state Senator Cheryl Jacques sponsored the legislation, and it had support from the attorney general, Scott Harshbarger, and the mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino. Today, only New Jersey and California have higher ratings from the Brady scorecard, and studies show that the law has worked in Massachusetts to curb gun violence compared to other states. But guns can easily cross state borders, and federal legislation is desperately needed. And this is where I fear leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties will falter.
I hope that politicians in Washington, worried about the backlash from pro-gun groups, learn from my experience. My support for the tougher gun control bill was vociferously opposed by one of the key voting blocs in a tough election fight. The Gun Owners Action League, the state’s gun lobby, even took me to court in protest. But I did what I thought was right and won election as governor.
This should not be a partisan fight.
Will we see the same type of coalition-building we engaged in here in our nation’s Capitol? When standing side by side with law enforcement, health leaders, and citizens groups, both Democrats and Republicans act to protect the American people by establishing common-sense regulations on firearms, especially by restricting high-capacity weapons and high-capacity clips.
This should not be a partisan fight. We should honor the unbearable grief of so many American families by acting now so that other American families do not have to suffer tragic loss.
But I also know it will not get done without strong presidential leadership. Having a press conference and treating this like any other legislation is not enough. President Obama must go to Congress to rally the nation like Lyndon B. Johnson did on another great issue that divided our country, equal rights for black Americans. On March 15, 1965, one week after the violence in Selma, Ala., LBJ delivered a majestic speech to a joint session of Congress. He eloquently adopted the rallying cry of the civil rights movement, “we shall overcome,” as his own. And he declared that this is an American problem.
Gun violence is a uniquely American problem. It will take strong presidential leadership and strong leadership in Congress to end the bloodshed and protect the people of the United States.
Argeo Paul Cellucci is the former Republican governor of Massachusetts and US ambassador to Canada.