Lesniak, Turner to introduce bill to address gun violence, mental health issues

TRENTON – Less than a week after a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn., Sens. Ray

TRENTON – Less than a week after a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn., Sens. Ray Lesniak and Shirley Turner have taken action to try and combat the level of violence in this country.

Lesniak said today he and Turner will introduce a bill Friday that would establish a nine-member commission to study violent trends, develop a method to address the problem at state and federal levels, and pursue federal funding for programs to reduce violence.

The legislative proposal, which would declare such large-scale violence a public health crisis, would recommend expanding a mental health court program in New Jersey and urge federal gun control measures.

The bill is a response not only to the Connecticut school massacre, but to other recent mass killings such as the shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 59 others in July.

The commission, which would hold public hearings, would include the Attorney General, the commissioner of Health, as well as public members appointed by the governor, Assembly Speaker, Senate President, and others.

It would submit a report to the governor within seven months.

Turner said they were not under any illusion this legislation would be a “silver bullet’’ to solve all of the problems, but that something must be done to counteract a culture in which children increasingly are surrounded by video games, movies and TV shows full of violence.

“Nobody wants to accept responsibility for that,” said Turner, D-15, Lawrence.

And Lesniak, D-20, Elizabeth, said, “As difficult as it is, it’s not impossible. There is no panacea.  There are many cases where you can spot it ahead of time.”

A key component of the bill would be its focus on expanded use of county-level programs to divert eligible defendants into mental health courts where they can receive the treatment necessary to possibly prevent a future Newtown from happening.

Assistant Union County prosecutors Doreen Yanik and Nathan Hewett-Guyton accompanied Lesniak and Turner at today’s press conference to promote the legislation.

“There is an increased need for access to the mental health system,’’ said Yanik, who explained that what began as a pilot program in Union  County about seven years ago has proven successful.

Hudson and Essex counties have similar initiatives, they said.

In Union County, they said, they have trained law enforcement officers in crisis intervention and have raised the overall level of awareness of the need for more access to mental health programs.

Hewett-Guyton said that people who go through this program achieve a “better life and a reduced risk of enacting violence in the community.”

Turner said she introduced a bill years ago to set up a pilot program in Mercer County modeled after the one in Union County, but the bill has not advanced.

Another advocate of the legislation being introduced, Salaam Ismial, director of the National United Youth Council, said he has been calling for such gun violence to be declared a health crisis since 1992.

“This has got to be priority one,’’ the Elizabeth resident said.  He cited Camden, which he said has had its 67th homicide, and the fatal shootings of two Pathmark workers in Old Bridge in August.

In a sense, he said, this is not about guns. “This bill is about how we treat those people who want to put a gun in their hand,” he said.

Lesniak referenced his time in the Army and contrasted it with the firearms the killer used at the Connecticut school.  “What that guy fired was not a gun, it was a weapon,’’ he said. “There is no reason for those weapons to exist, to be sold in America.”

New Jersey has strong gun-control laws, Lesniak said, but they are undercut by weak laws in other states and the lack of a strong federal ban on assault weapons.

He said there needs to be a ban on such weapons, and required background checks on purchases.

“We want to do everything possible to attack the root causes of violence that is happening way too often in our country,” he said.

Lesniak, Turner to introduce bill to address gun violence, mental health issues