A PUBLISHER WRITES: I understand the desperate desire to do something immediately about gun violence after what happened in Newtown. Still, I prefer the approach taken by our governor today in creating a task force that he said will center on “the intersection of gun control, addiction, mental health and school safety” in New Jersey.
I’ve seen task forces change public policy for the better. I’ve also endured those that accomplished little.
After devoting a year to an in-depth examination of the New Jersey juvenile justice system, I watched proudly as Gov. Florio named a blue-ribbon panel to read through my three dozen-plus stories and issue recommendations for reform. I felt hope swell when the “elite” team produced a 64-page report.
I then felt the air let out of that ballooning ambition when the report got dumped on a shelf somewhere in Trenton, never to be picked up again.
The NJ SAFE Task Force will do better with Christie looking over its collective shoulder. He gave them two months – beginning TODAY.
It won’t be a futile exercise, not with two former attorneys general of New Jersey as co-chairs: Montclair’s Peter Verniero, who also sat on the state Supreme Court bench for five years, and onetime Brendan Byrne confidante, John Degnan, who sits among the brass at the Chubb Corporation. The former’s a Republican, the latter a Democrat.
The task force won’t lack enlightenment, not with members who are experts in mental health diagnosis and treatment, addiction services, law enforcement and school safety.
It’s exactly the type of team you want hatching genuine, workable, reliable solutions.
I’ve nothing against marches. They’re good for the soul. The collective embrace is powerful. In the end, though, all the protests and Band-Aid legislation — rushed through as if lawmakers were double-parked — don’t change the circumstances that lead to the slaughter of innocents.
And while I would like to see certain guns taken out of public circulation, along with background checks that go as deep as necessary to ferret out those who should never carry any kind of weapon, I also understand that those moves, in and of themselves, leave holes in the public safety net that you can drive a tank through.
After all, New Jersey has one of the toughest gun laws in the nation; it works with neighboring states to pursue firearms traffickers, killers and thieves. But it can’t prevent a procession of gun runners from recruiting straw buyers in lax states, loading their trunks with weapons and making a killing (figuratively) on our streets.
Christie, acting deliberately and thoughtfully, called for a “full assessment to consider whether additional common sense measures are appropriate for New Jersey.” He told the group to proceed in the same way.
Be quick, but don’t hurry, he essentially said — the mantra of basketball coaching legend John Wooden.
“Violence in our society has never been solely about firearms, and we would miss an opportunity to better prevent heinous crimes if we didn’t look at the complete picture,” Christie said today. “If we are truly going to take an honest and candid assessment of violence and public safety, we have to look more deeply at the underlying causes of many acts of violence.
“That means removing the stigma and evaluating issues of mental health, addiction, prevention and treatment services alongside the effectiveness of our firearms laws, enforcement mechanisms, and our school safety measures.”
Christie was once the top federal lawman in New Jersey. He was also a county freeholder. He has never operated from a remove – and obviously isn’t about to start (100 Town Hall meetings and counting). The man I once called Chris, when he was both an engaging and no-nonsesne U.S. Attorney, and then the Notorous G.O.V., when he went to war against police, has mixed and mingled with more experts than any of us could hope to ever meet.
He also knows how to get to the heart of a problem.
I’ve known attorneys who pore over testimony, re-interview witnesses and conduct mock trials with their friends and loved ones, trying to find that sweet spot that brings a victory. Christie, on the other hand, could sit with a case file, ask a few questions and then zero in on what matters most.
That ability to cut through the thicket, process in an instant and nail the money ball made some colleagues jealous.
It’s coming in very handy right about now (PHOTO TOP: Courtesy NJ Govenor’s Office/Tim Larsen).
“My commitment has always been to evaluate public safety, criminal policy, and behavioral science with an approach that recognizes that these issues cannot be separated from one another,” Christie said today. Otherwise, the debate ends up “narrowly limited to gun crime, ownership and trafficking.”
Then the constitutional-rights battle resumes and the point gets lost.
None of us wants to see another innocent slain if we can help it. But skipping the homework and, instead, immediately defaulting to gun control does nothing to make our world healthier, stronger or safer.
Verniero had it right when he said: “There may never be a more appropriate time in our state’s history to undertake this kind of review. The intersection of crime, access to firearms, mental health and the impulses that spark extreme acts of violence is ripe for in-depth understanding and appropriate change in our public policy….”
To which he added: “…if warranted.”
The blue-ribbon panel that he co-chairs can’t be expected to supply the be-all and end-all – that’s for sure.
But you gotta admit: It’s not a bad place to start.
* * * * * * * * * *
In addition to Verniero and Degnan, the panelists are:
Dr. Manuel Guantez, a 20-year veteran of addiction and mental health treatment services, now the Chief Executive Officer of Turning Point, Inc. (Fairfield), which provides alcohol and drug addiction treatment;
James Romer, the Monmouth County Services Director at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch and the president of the Mental Health Emergency Screening Association. Christie said Romer’s work includes “providing evaluations for the danger [the mentally ill] pose to themselves or others — kids and adults alike”;
Evelyn Sullivan, the Managing Director of Daytop Village’s Ocean County office. Like her fellow panelists, Sullivan’s resume sparkles; She spent 15 years as Director of Substance Abuse Services at Preferred Behavioral Health of New Jersey and as the Director of the Central Intake Unit for the Newark Target Cities project. She’s also worked for Elizabeth General Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and the Monmouth County Department of Human Services, and as a counselor in private practice for individuals and families;
Dr. Brian Zychowski, currently Superintendent of North Brunswick Township Public Schools and previously the chief official with school districts in Clark and Atlantic Highlands. He’s also a known commodity: Zychowski chaired the New Jersey Educators Effectiveness Task Force, whose recommendations provided the blueprint for the Christie Administration’s public education reforms.