Heidi Heitkamp desperately wants you to know that she’s just a good ole gal from the prairies of North Dakota who doesn’t put much truck in all of this Washington DC doubletalk and wonk-speak. She’s a straight-shootin’, Midwest values havin’, swap meet lovin’ type of woman and she ain’t like most of them Democrats on the Hill. The truth is, she’s not really much of a Democrat at all, if her first month or so in Warshington (that’s how you say it when you’re homespun) are to be believed. The freshman senator from North Dakota campaigned on a platform that did everything short of denouncing Obamacare while still technically supporting it and has spent the past 12 years of her professional life in the private sector as the director of a manufacturing plant for a company called—and I’m not making this up—the Dakota Gasification Company. If she was in any state outside of the Heartland or the South she’d be a Republican, but apparently things have shifted so far to the right in Roughrider State that not calling Obama a socialist and opposing tax breaks for millionaires is enough to label you as a liberal.
One place where Heitkamp diverts mightily from her Democratic colleagues in the Senate is on the issue of gun control. In a political climate where former “gun rights” stalwarts like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia are openly reevaluating their once hardline stances on firearm regulations, Heitkamp has stayed firm in her belief that no major change is needed in our nation’s gun policy. Given an A grade from the National Rifle Association prior to taking office, Heitkamp has not been shy about waxing poetic on her love of guns. In one of her campaign ads this fall, she took great pains to portray herself as a forgotten character from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, talking about how blessed she was to come from a big family in a small town where she, “learned that guns and tractors and schools were all part of how we lived.” In many ways, Heitkamp is just a sane, pragmatic and Midwestern version of Sarah Palin. She got elected as a Democrat in a conservative state by pitching herself as an aww shucks daughter of construction worker who wasn’t going to touch their precious guns & oil, and she has no experience in politics outside of two terms as North Dakota’s attorney general in the 1990s. The comparison to Palin may come across as a slap in the face because, to some degree it is. The two women were elected on the strength of their personalities and the appeal of their private lives rather than any substantive legislative experience.
This past Sunday, Heitkamp took to the morning talk show circuit to express her concern over rumblings that the Obama administration’s gun control task force was ready to recommend far-reaching gun reform. On ABC’s This Week, Heitkamp told host George Stephanopoulos that plans that the White House is currently considering are, “way in the extreme”, without bothering to discuss any of gun control measures allegedly being mulled over by the task force. She than went on to contradict herself in a most extraordinary fashion, saying that she believed that it was time to, “put everything on the table” concerning gun regulations immediately before stating that the White House proposals being reported by The Washington Post were well beyond what she thought, “[was] necessary or even should be talked about.” So, essentially what she’s saying is that we should consider every available avenue for gun reform, except for those that she finds too crazy to warrant discussion. It’s a bit nonsensical verbal gymnastics that Yogi Berra himself would have been proud of, but what does it mean in the way of shaping gun policy?
Well, if you listen to Heitkamp tell it, guns are not the issue. On CNN’s State of the Union, she told host Candy Crowley that we needed to take, “a balanced approach” to a problem that she believes doesn’t warrant a “one-size-fits-all solution.” As the typical gun rights logic goes, we should be spending our energy focusing on the underlying issues in our nation’s treatment of mental health rather than the guns used by those mentally ill individuals. To the idea of requiring a nuanced, comprehensive plan of action to stop gun violence in this country, I am completely in agreement with Sen. Heitkamp. Re-instituting a ban on assault weapons or limiting magazine capacities will not, by themselves, make a very large dent in stopping gun violence, even though studies have shown that US states with more gun control laws generally have fewer gun homicides than those states with less gun control legislation1. Most rational American gun control advocates realize this and, in the interest of compromise and agreement, I will offer you this olive branch, Sen. Heitkamp: all I want in the way of gun control legislation is a ban on magazines with more than 15 rounds in them and an end to the gun-show background check loophole. That’s it. Y’all can stockpile AR-15s and fancy looking civilian modified assault rifles to your heart’s content. If you’re willing to undergo a background check and wait a couple days when you first purchase a firearm, then I don’t give a shit if you have an entire armory in your house. I mean, honestly, there already so many millions of automatic and semi-automatic guns circulating around that an assault weapons ban wouldn’t do much of anything unless you made it retroactive, in which case you’d have to talk the “from my cold, dead hands” crowd into turning in their preciouses. Ain’t gonna happen.
Now, in return for my magnanimity concerning our federal government’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, all I want you to do is follow through on what you believe is the real problem: mental health. In 2008, Congress passed The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a piece of legislation designed to make sure that insurance companies provided for mental health and substance abuse needs in the same way that they would for physical health issues. Of course, design and implementation are two very different things and the act has been an abject failure. You see, when they signed the bill into law, Congress failed to create any sort of regulatory mechanism to go with it. With no one enforcing the new parity requirements, it’s pretty much like they were never introduced in the first place. It’s like having the state highway patrol put speed limit signs reducing the top speed from 70 MPH to 55 MPH, but neglecting to place any state troopers to check how fast folks are going.
As a result of Congress’s lack of foresight, The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act has been abject failure thus far. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s (Obamacare’s) state health exchanges less than two years away, there has never been a more crucial time to ramp up mental health and substance abuse advocacy than now. For those states whose government’s are helmed by people still in possession of their soul, Medicaid expansion will provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured individuals and, through the 10 essential health benefits required of these state plans, millions more with hypothetical access to mental health services. If you’re actually serious about reforming mental health care in this country Sen. Heitkamp, I suggest you get to working on it. North Dakota’s proposed state benchmark HMO plan doesn’t include habilitative services for people with developmental disabilities. Get on it. Even after the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, there will still be an estimated 30 million Americans without any sort of health insurance. Get on it. Insurance companies are still treating mental illness as a second-class disease, brazenly ignoring the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and keeping millions of Americans from receiving the psychiatric care that they need. Get your gun-loving, farm-friendly, prairie-dwelling ass on it. Then we’ll talk about your precious guns.