Why Congress doesn't do anything about gun violence in America
Former U.S. Congressman Steve Israel explains why Congress seems so paralyzed and can't pass any commonsense gun control.
Steve Israel is a congressman and former United States Representative New York's third congressional district, serving in the United States Congress from 2001 to 2017. Born and raised in Brooklyn and on Long Island, Israel graduated from George Washington University. He is the author of the novels The Global War on Morris and Big Guns.
Steve Israel: Well, here’s why I wrote Big Guns: I had served in Congress for 16 years, and in those 16 years I witnessed a shooting at a university in Virginia, a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora Colorado, a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut—and after every single one of those mass shootings I and virtually every one of my colleagues were confronted with the same question, and that is: when is Congress going to do something about it? When will this stop?
Not necessarily “when will congress do everything about it,” but just “do something,” do universal background checks or some commonsense legislation.
And when my constituents in New York would ask that question I knew that the honest answer (and the painful answer) was: we’re not. Congress is not going to do anything because of the politics that surrounded the gun safety debate.
And I decided to try and answer that question in the best way I can, and that is with snark, with humor, and from the very inside of Congress.
I wrote this book during hearings on gun safety; I wrote this book on the floor of the House of Representatives; I wrote this book on that little balcony off the floor of the House of Representatives where members go to rest while they’re not beating each other up inside.
And so this book—really it’s a reflection of what I learned as a member of Congress, and it is my way of explaining to readers why Congress seems so paralyzed in the face of this mass violence that is affecting so many communities and so many of our constituents.
Ninety percent of the American people support strengthened background checks, about 80 percent of Republicans support strengthened background checks, a majority of an RMA members support strengthened background checks, and yet when we offered this amendment for stronger background checks in the Appropriations Committee it was defeated virtually in a party line vote.
And I was wrestling with this. Why would members of Congress vote against something that has such massive support?
Well, I learned the lesson, and the lesson is reflected in Big Guns. After that hearing I went to one of the most sacred places on Capitol Hill, not a church but the members-only elevator. And the reason it’s sacred is because on the members-only elevator you can’t have tourists in, you can’t have the media in, you can’t have staff in, and so you reach a real level of confidentiality in that cramped space.
And a bunch of members piled onto this elevator after the committee meeting, and one of the Republicans on this elevator said, “Why did you try and force us to vote for this amendment for background checks?”
And I said, “Well, we didn’t force you to do anything. You voted against it. My question to you is why would you vote against it?”
And this member looked at me and said, “I wanted to vote for it, but I can’t go home and explain that vote to my gun lobby voters. It would be the end of my career.”
That tells you everything you need to know about why Congress seems so paralyzed.
I did not want to write Big Guns as my personal screed against the NRA and the gun lobby.
I thought the best and most credible way of writing this book was to bring different characters in with different viewpoints.
And by the way, that’s what Congress is like. It’s different characters with different viewpoints.
And I felt that the best way to tell this story was as a satire, but all satire has to be based on a kernel of truth. And the truth in this book is the fact that Congress does nothing. The book was actually based on an extraordinary and shocking event after the Sandy Hook massacre that killed children in this elementary school in Connecticut. I was reading, sitting having breakfast right after that, I was so convinced that we in Congress were finally going to do something; when first graders are gunned down it would seem that Congress would do something.
And my confidence was really high and I was having breakfast and I was reading my New York Times one morning and I came upon this article, and I could have sworn that the New York Times had been infiltrated by the writers of The Onion, because it seemed so bizarre.
The story was that—while most state and local governments were actually passing local ordinances for gun safety, because Congress would do nothing—the small city of Nelson, Georgia decided that they would go in a different direction. This small city passed a local ordinance requiring that every resident of the city must possess a firearm. And that was my kernel of truth.
And when saw that I—first I had to figure out if it was actually true, and then when I realized that it was true I decided to build a satire around this, only instead of making it applicable to one small city in Georgia, I “federalized” it.
I create this law that requires that every American must own a firearm that works its way through Congress.
Now, if I had just written about the process it would be maybe a slightly lighter version of the Congressional record, still very boring, and so I decided I had to weave into it real characters.
And I had to make sure that the characters express different viewpoints because the gun debate is influenced by so many different viewpoints.
So it was important to me that this story reflect both sides of the issue, but also make the point that Congress will not act because of the politics that surrounds us and the fear that so many of my colleagues have—not that their constituents are going to be shot, but that their careers may be ended if they take on the NRA and the gun lobby.
And I'll just say one other thing on this: after every mass shooting the entire country is galvanized, they want to mobilize.
I mean think about what happened after Parkland. It was so certain that Congress was going to pass something. There were rallies and marches, and everybody was talking about it. But now we’re months from Parkland and what has Congress done? Nothing.
I wrote this book so people will be reminded that the solution to this is in the Congress and they have to keep pressuring their members of Congress to pass meaningful reforms that will make our kids safer.
Former U.S. Representative Steve Israel explains why Congress seems so paralyzed and can't pass any commonsense gun control despite the mass violence that is affecting so many communities across the country. Israel reminds that while the solution does lie with the Congress, there is something people can do to push for the passage of meaningful reforms.
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Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
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