The mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school has once again turned the public spotlight on the epidemic of gun violence in America. Gun violence takes the lives of 30,000 Americans each year, and injures an additional 70,000, but victims' families and friends, and, indeed, all of us are touched by this ongoing national tragedy.
Massacres like the one in Connecticut and daily shootings around the country compel many to ask, "Can't we do something about gun violence in America?" The answer, of course, is yes—beginning with changing the weak federal laws that allow almost anyone access to a wide variety of deadly weapons.
In the aftermath, Americans are hungry for action: a recent bipartisan nationwide poll [pdf] confirmed that large majorities of Americans support a variety of innovative, common sense reforms. While political will may lag behind public opinion, it's time to demand safer, less violent communities and to embrace the smart laws that can make them a reality. A good start would include federal adoption of the following proposals:
- Ban large capacity ammunition magazines. In Tucson, Jared Loughner was able to cause so much devastation in a matter of seconds because he used a handgun equipped with a large capacity ammunition magazine capable of holding 33 bullets. Large capacity magazines, some of which can hold up to 100 rounds, are the common thread uniting all of the major mass shootings in recent history [pdf], including those at Fort Hood, Columbine, and Virginia Tech. These magazines were prohibited under federal law until Congress allowed the 1994 assault weapons ban to expire in 2004. There's simply no reason not to ban them again, and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Frank Lautenberg have courageously introduced legislation to do just that.
- Require a background check every time a firearm is sold. Many Americans assume that every person who wants to purchase a gun must first pass a criminal background check confirming that he or she isn't prohibited from owning guns. If only that were the case. Under federal law, a prospective purchaser only has to undergo a background check when buying a gun from a licensed dealer. If a person buys a gun from a so-called "private seller"—as is the case in an estimated 40 percent of gun sales every year—no background check is federally required.
Since 1994, the background check system has prevented nearly 1.8 million prohibited persons from purchasing firearms [pdf], while untold numbers of convicted criminals and mentally ill individuals have exploited the "private sale loophole" to gain access to guns. A recent undercover investigation by the City of New York showed just how easy it is to get a gun at a gun show, no questions asked. A background check requirement alone isn't enough—more also needs to be done to ensure that the names of persons who are prohibited are appropriately entered into the system—but it would be a vital step in the right direction.
- Give ATF the resources it needs. A common refrain used to oppose firearms legislation is that "we should just enforce the laws that are on the books." Although new laws are certainly needed, better enforcement is an important piece of reducing gun violence, which is why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) needs to have the resources and leadership to effectively enforce existing federal firearms laws.
For starters, it would be nice for ATF to have a boss. The agency has not had a permanent director in over four years. That's an inexcusable leadership vacuum, and the Senate ought to promptly confirm President Obama's nominee for ATF Director, Andrew Traver. Second, the Bureau should be given the resources to crack down on dishonest firearms dealers. A small number of unscrupulous gun dealers—by one estimate, only 1 percent of all licensed dealers—sell the majority of firearms recovered in crime scenes nationwide. ATF has the authority to perform an unannounced inspection on a dealer once a year; ATF has the resources, however, to perform an inspection, on average, only once every decade. As documented by the Washington Post late last year, that's only one of the many resource limitations that are preventing ATF agents from more effectively preventing the widespread trafficking of crime guns.
- Improve access to funding and data for researchers. Congress has, time and again, succumbed to gun lobby pressure to obstruct research into the development of smart, effective policies to fight gun violence, stopping the flow of data as well as money. As the New York Times reported recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) once played a key role in supporting research into the public health concerns surrounding gun violence and the development of effective firearms laws. That was until Congress singled out guns in the CDC's funding bill with language stating that, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control…may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
Researchers are also denied access to data tracing the origins of firearms recovered in crimes. Trace information helped academics and members of the public identify particularly problematic gun dealers and observe trends in the spread of crime guns until Congress, in what is known as the Tiahrt Amendment, imposed restrictions that now conceal trace data from public view. This data could provide a valuable resource for innovative policy reform; for example, a recent report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns used trace data to identify ten important state laws that can reduce the trafficking of illegal guns across state lines.
This list could go on, as the gaps in federal firearms laws are as many as they are glaring. Still, there's reason to think that successfully reducing gun violence through the adoption of common sense gun policy is possible, and the evidence lies not at the federal level, but among the states. While too many states have done nothing to combat gun violence, state and local governments in California and New York, among others, continue to adopt innovative laws to protect public safety. In a recent publication, Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) found that many of the states with the strongest gun laws also have the lowest gun death rates, while many states with the weakest gun laws have the highest gun death rates.
One conclusion seems inescapable. As the LCAV publication's title puts it, Gun Laws Matter. With this knowledge, we'll all be empowered to work toward a better, less violent future.
The media can, as we know, promote fear, hatred, and extremism. Can they also lead us to greater civility and more productive debate?
9 progressive policies to protect our families.