Posted Feb 10, 2014 06:28 pm CST
In an emotional speech to the ABA House of Delegates on Monday, ABA President James R. Silkenat criticized Congress for failing to adopt gun legislation after the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 20 elementary-school children and six school staff members.
Fighting back tears, Silkenat said he has a farm near Newtown, and he knows how the tragedy devastated families who lost loved ones. “I’m still heartsick that Congress was unable to respond to the tragedy that took place in Newtown,” Silkenat said. “Congress failed to prevent these tragedies of the future.”
Silkenat said many lawmakers appear to be more concerned about their approval rating from the gun lobby than the protection of their constituents.
The ABA has taken a strong stance in favor of laws to prevent gun violence since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Silkenat said. More recently, the ABA backed legislation to improve background checks for gun owners, fight gun trafficking, and limit military assault-type firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Those reforms are consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Second Amendment opinion in Heller, which acknowledged limits on gun ownership, Silkenat asserted.
Silkenat said there are strong views on all sides of the topic, but lawyers have a responsibility to participate in the discussion of the legal issues. “America’s legal response to gun violence so far is unacceptable,” he said.
Silkenat began his speech with a discussion of ABA’s Legal Access Job Corps, formed to address two issues: the dearth of legal jobs for recent law graduates, and the high level of unmet legal needs among those with low and moderate incomes.
Silkenat cited some statistics to illustrate the problem: In 2012, only 56 percent of law school graduates had a job requiring bar passage nine months after graduation. And less than one in five of the legal problems experienced by low-income individuals are addressed by private attorneys or legal aid lawyers.
He referred to state, bar and law school initiatives designed to address the problem, including legal incubators, nonprofit fellowships and rural outreach programs that offer financial incentives for lawyers to practice in underserved areas. The ABA should help coordinate, stimulate and assist these efforts, he said.