By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Congress should increase mental-health spending, follow California's lead in creating a firearms registry and require all gun buyers to undergo background checks, experts told House Democrats on Wednesday.
The head of a Los Angeles foundation, a deputy California attorney general and a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were among those who made recommendations to a Democratic group that's working on a legislative package to combat gun violence.
Napa Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, a hunter and a gun owner, is leading the group, which hopes to unveil proposals next month that would appeal to Democrats and Republicans.
The Wednesday meeting was the task force's second. It came the day before another Californian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, presents the Senate Democrats' proposals, which will include a new assault weapons ban. Feinstein was the author of the previous ban, which was in effect from 1994-2004.
Dr. Robert Ross, a pediatrician who heads The California Endowment, played a video clip at the House hearing in which a few California children -- including one from Coachella -- demanded immediate steps from Congress to stop gun violence. The video ended with stern-faced children saying, one by one, "Enough."
Ross' recommendations included increasing mental-health services at schools and taking steps to identify mentally ill youth before they become killers.
"The key to preventing violence is understanding who is attached to the fingers that pull the triggers," Ross said. "We have a national crisis of disengaged, disconnected, disempowered young people, many of whom are mentally ill."
Marc LeForestier, a deputy California attorney general, touted the state's gun laws as a potential national model.
Like California, Congress should require gun buyers to undergo criminal background checks and use those records to build a firearms registry, he said.
But in response to Thompson's question, LeForestier acknowledged that 600,000 firearms are still sold illegally every year in California even though the state reputedly has the nation's toughest gun laws.
David Chipman, a retired BATFE special agent, said not having a nationwide system of background checks is "a flaw so large that it makes gun laws meaningless."
Among his other suggestions: Ramping up penalties for gun traffickers and banning high-capacity ammunition clips.
"We can either maintain the status quo . . . or we can remove the obstacles that challenge our crime fighters from preventing the bad guys from ever getting a gun in the first place," Chipman said.
Though James Cummings, a member of the National Rifle Association testified, no leader with the powerful lobbying group was present.
The NRA opposes any gun legislation on grounds that it would infringe on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. A week after December's Connecticut school shootings, the group urged Congress to pay for armed officers at every school and offered to provide training.
Gannett Washington Bureau