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Q&A: State Senator Jason Barickman on gun policy choices

An officer walks outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25.
Allison Dinner
AFP via Getty Images
An officer walks outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25.

The school shooting in Texas and numerous other instances of mass violence recently have raised an outcry for ways to prevent such atrocities. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker talks with state Sen. Jason Barickman about policy choice in the debate over guns. Barickman is a Republican from Bloomington-Normal. Barickman says he acknowledges the system is imperfect and society needs to find ways to do better.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Barickman: I think many people are focused on the the Texas shooting and the failures that existed within the response of the police officers. There was some breakdown there. We have to understand what occurred specifically there, and how we can make sure that doesn't repeat itself. I'm sure there will be things beyond that. But I think that's a certainly a starting point as we learn from that tragic event.

Jason Barickman
Carleigh Gray
WGLT file
State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican from Bloomington-Normal.

WGLT: Yes, there were breakdowns and failures in Texas. But advocates for change are pointing toward a larger systemic issue about the availability of guns that have high rates of fire. Without getting into the nitty gritty about what constitutes an assault-style weapon, it has been constitutional since the 1930s to regulate rates of fire. We ban fully automatic weapons, except for certain permits and the hurdles for those federal permits are pretty high. Should we consider similar limitations on semi-automatic weapons to reduce rates of fire and potential casualty counts when there are breakdowns and somebody does get access to a place where there are vulnerable kids?

I think this is a an incredibly emotional issue. And there are important perspectives, I think, on on each side of this. I'm certainly aware of the many advocates who are out there, putting their voices to use towards change, maybe even generally speaking. And there's lots of voices out there on behalf of law-abiding gun owners, who are concerned about an overreach of government that limits the rights of those law-abiding individuals. One of the incredible circumstances of Texas is that by all accounts, this young man appears to have been a law-abiding person.

I know there's a political charge that comes with this, but I think we do have to consider what the emotional state and the mental state of someone who takes a weapon of any sort and commits murder. I don't think all the laws in the world are going to stop criminals and bad people from doing bad things. We need to spend efforts on understanding why these people are committing these acts of violence and what the government response is to the question of 'why.' I don't think it's just about access. I think people who shoot other people have much more fundamental problems that we in society need to be concerned about. And we in government, need to try to put solutions forward to help with what kind of solutions.

What solutions?

One easy example is in Illinois the mental health system lacks resources. If you're an individual who's suffering from mental illness, if you're a family who has someone with a mental illness, having access to the services, and the medication that is helpful to them, has been a real struggle for people.

Most mass shooters, though, are not formally diagnosed with a mental illness. They're not going to be in whatever system you're talking about bolstering. Should there be mental health assessments to be allowed to buy a gun or some other filter that will find people?

I'm not sure what that filter is. I don't pretend to know what all the answers are. But I think I've demonstrated historically, I'm the type of lawmaker that's going to keep an open mind. I'm going to try to learn from the things we're seeing out there and really look to the policy proposals that may exist and try to come up with something.

Again, I understand there's an emotional component to this. People want to see something done. I would join that. I'd like to see something done, but what is it and what does the data show that will have an effect on the causes of this? Those are going to be the drivers that compel me one way or another.

Most shooters are 15- to 24-year-old white men who have some sort of troubled background, even though often not formally diagnosed. Should we change the age requirement to be allowed to own a gun to allow brain development to happen and to allow other people to find these troubled people before they have easy access to guns?

Society has really established an age of the majority, that age for which people become an adult, and defined that effectively as 18. I acknowledge there are some limited exceptions to that. It's the date for which an individual can join the military. We saw in Illinois, decisions to change the abortion laws recently [editor's note: a repeal of parental notification requirements before teens can seek an abortion]. And they talked about the fact young people suddenly had an ability to make decisions for those types of choices. I think politicians introduce an arbitrariness driven by emotions. I think there's a much more-data driven solution that has to come than simply saying, Well, we're going to raise the age and think that's going to solve all the problems. I think there's a voice out there that is advocating for that. At the federal level they're discussing that. In Illinois, the age is effectively 21 already. You have to own a FOID card to own a firearm. And to own a FOID card, you have to be 21, or get your parents consent (18-21). And your parents can't be criminals. What is it about Illinois law that is ineffective in what you're trying to accomplish?

Let's go back to the idea of mental health assessments. In every big question, such as that, it's a test of balancing rights. Many of your fellow Republicans oppose mental health assessment requirements for gun ownership, saying it infringes on the individual right to own a gun. Stacked up against that is the right, for people to be safe, and the duty that government has to ensure safety. It's the collective good versus individual rights. Where do you fall on that?

I think historically, I have been very protective of individual rights. I think when you put in place, say, mental health screenings, you have to dig into what is that? Who is screening? What is it that we're looking for? Are these non-biased evaluations that are being undertaken? I think there's a whole lot of scrutiny that ought be done, rather than simply saying, Well, we're just going to subject a bunch of 18-year-olds to a mental health screening.

Maybe the answer is that there's some evaluation that needs to be done. But I think we need to see that in a data-driven solution, and not just be an emotional reaction to a very tragic set of circumstances.

It has been years since the shooting in Parkland, Florida. It has been decades since Columbine. Why hasn't the data been developed before now? Why haven't lawmakers like you asked that the data be developed enough for these kinds of questions that you're hesitating on to be answered?

Well, I think for me, I've pushed hard on the mental health services that are available and in use in Illinois. We get into funding debates and whether the funding exists. That is an area that I've certainly pushed on and advocated for, but we need help. We need help from our partners in the mental health community to come forward with data-driven solutions that can be considered as lawmakers.

Illinois has very few laws requiring guns to be locked up. Do you support additional legal requirements for gun owners related to safe storage? For example, a requirement to own a gun safe rather than just a trigger lock?

I think it was just this last year we passed legislation that I supported that dealt with training on how to keep guns safely. Again, if you think about the balance that exists in government, the responses between what the government says is the collective good versus the individual rights of people, one of the things that we can continue to do is encourage the education of gun owners. And so that's a bipartisan effort that was passed. I think that's a good proposal. I'm someone who came through the, for example, the hunter safety class that exists through the Department of Natural Resources. These are good things that help to educate the public.

But again we have to ask the question of, if bad people are out there with a desire to do bad things, we have to get to the source of what is it that's causing those people to do those things.

The Wall Street Journal and Parkland Promise have found that two-thirds roughly of mass shootings involve people who've had access to guns through the home that weren't locked up, that family members hadn't secured and prevented a troubled person from accessing weapons. The education part for gun ownership doesn't appear to be working on that front. Should they be required by law to have this?

Your questions, Charlie, lead with the notion that there's bad people out there who are accessing their guns. And what I'm saying is, why don't we spend more time and effort identifying those bad people, and figuring out how to stop them from taking those actions?

It's not just a single-source solution, though. Why shouldn't we also do this?

Again, you have to balance the rights that exist here. I believe the source of the problem are individuals who are making devastatingly terrible choices. To attempt to get to the root of that, you have to be careful. Go all around Central Illinois and you have farm communities. On farms it is a common thing for a farmer to keep a 20-gauge shotgun at their shed, not in a gun safe, and have it accessible so that he or she can kill rodents. Are we going to pass a law that has the effect of creating criminals out of people who are not creating the problems here? That is an example of the balancing act that exists and why we have to be careful with it.

You mentioned education. Should there be periodic training and education requirements to legally own guns or should it be voluntary education?

We have some educational components that exist that are that are positive. I mentioned earlier, the hunter safety classes that IDNR administers, which I think are very good....

And those are required for hunting permits, but they're not required for gun ownership. Should they be required for gun ownership?

Gun ownership requires the possession of a FOID card and the FOID card has requirements with it. What you seem to be desiring to do here, Charlie, is go through a litany, a checklist of things. What I'm asking is, where's the data that these things are going to create less violence? I'm not trying to draw a line in the sand to your, What about this? What about this? What about this? What I'm trying to do is explain the way I approach potential solutions, which is not driven by an emotional response, but is much more driven by data.

Editor's note: Among the Illinois FOID card requirements are: no felony convictions, no domestic violence convictions, no orders of protection, no assault or battery convictions, have not been a patient at a mental hospital within five years, no controlled substance addiction or drug test failure in the last year, no intellectual disabilities, no dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, no illegal immigrants, no fugitives from justice, and have never renounced U.S. citizenship. The minimum age to hold a FOID card is 18 with parents' consent, and 21 otherwise.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.