OP-ED: The Gun Control Debate: What Debate?
Too often, when you raise the issue of guns in this country, it sparks highly divisive rhetoric with both sides drawing lines in the sand and pointing their arrows at each other. Caught in the middle, we see the faces and hear the voices of children who’ve witnessed the slaughter of their friends and teachers and who are crying out for action. The question is, will we hear them? Will we care enough to do something about it?
Horrific tragedies like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just over one month ago is something that touches every one of us, regardless of political party or ideology. Sadly, it is something that could happen to any community, family, or school. This is why it’s so important that the humanity and aloha (respect and care) that unites us all must come to the forefront of our dialogue as we try to prevent these tragedies from ever occurring again.
On February 14th, 17 lives were lost in Parkland when a former classmate brought an AR-15 to school and opened fire on the students and teachers. He used a weapon that he had purchased legally - but he shouldn’t have been able to.
There have been more shootings since that day, and there will be more in the coming weeks and years if we don’t come together and find solutions. Survivors and allies across the country have gathered in a show of solidarity, calling for change – to do whatever possible to prevent more of these horrific tragedies from occurring and taking innocent lives. They have organized country-wide protests and walk-outs, and on March 24th thousands will march on Washington and at marches across the country. We are proud to stand with these courageous young people today and every day.
But Congress has yet to act.
The majority of people across this country believe that we need to pass common sense gun safety legislation. A Gallup poll found that two thirds (67%) of Americans feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict; A Quinnipiac University poll found that over six in ten Americans (63%) support stricter gun laws in the United States; And a CNN poll found that seven-in-ten Americans (69%) favor stricter gun control laws.
There are a number of legislative actions that have been proposed but have yet to see the light of day on the House floor. Passing this legislation would be a step in the right direction to protecting our kids and innocent people across this country:
Restrict Access to Assault Weapons
Assault weapons have been, by far, the most used weapon in mass shootings in recent history. They are used for a number of reasons: they are easy to acquire, and they are designed to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. The shooter who killed 59 people in Las Vegas on October 1st last year used a semi-automatic gun modified with a bump stock, turning it into an automatic rifle. The 19-year-old shooter who killed 17 people at his former school on February 14th of this year used an AR-15, a semi-automatic weapon.
The fact assault weapons are so frequently used to kill enormous numbers of people in this country, and that bump stocks are not illegal, are issues that we must address. A Quinnipiac University poll found that six in ten Americans (61%) support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, and an NPR-Ipsos poll found that 82% support banning bump stocks.
Restrict Access to High Capacity Ammunition Magazines
High-capacity ammunition magazines are frequently used by mass shooters in the United States. The Giffords Law Center explains that “shooters with such magazines can fire at large numbers of people without taking the time to reload, those in the line of fire do not have a chance to escape, law enforcement does not have the chance to intervene, and the number of lives shattered by senseless acts of gun violence increases dramatically.”
"Despite the public’s lack of trust in Congress, the American public has not given up hope that change can happen."
A majority of Americans believe that access to these high-capacity ammunition magazines should be banned. A CNN poll found that over six-in-ten (63%) Americans favor a ban on the sale and possession of equipment known as high-capacity or extended ammunition magazines. A Quinnipiac University poll similarly found that over six in ten (63%) of Americans support a nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Increase Legal Age to Buy A Gun
In America, licensed firearm dealers are allowed to sell a gun to an 18-year old, before a bartender is legally allowed to sell that person an alcoholic drink or before they are able to rent a car. To make matters worse, unlicensed persons are legally allowed to sell, deliver, or otherwise transfer a long gun (rifles and shotguns) to a person of any age. This irony is not lost on Americans, causing a vast majority of respondents to believe that the legal age to buy a gun should be increased to 21. A CNN poll found that seven-in-ten (71%) Americans favor preventing people under the age of 21 from buying any type of gun, while a Quinnipiac University poll found that almost 8-in-10 (78%) of Americans support requiring individuals to be 21 years of age or older in order to purchase a gun.
Universal Background Checks
Currently, there is a gaping loophole in federal firearm laws regarding background checks. While federal laws require licensed gun dealers to perform background checks, federal law does not require unlicensed sellers (like private sellers, and those who sell online and at gun shows) to run background checks. According to the Giffords Law Center, “A 2017 study estimated that 42% of US gun owners acquired their most recent firearm without a background check.” This allows people who might otherwise have been prevented from accessing a gun, to easily acquire one.
In addition, The Washington Post reported in 2017 that “The FBI's background-check system is missing millions of records of criminal convictions, mental illness diagnoses and other flags that would keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands.” In addition to requiring universal background checks, we must make sure that the database is complete and those who should be flagged, are. For example, I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to close a loophole that has allowed those who’ve been convicted of domestic violence charges to purchase firearms.
A Monmouth University poll found that over eight-in-ten (83%) Americans support requiring comprehensive background checks for all gun purchasers. A Quinnipiac University poll found that almost all Americans (97%) support requiring background checks for all gun buyers.
While a majority of Americans want the government to implement many of these common-sense gun safety measures, they don’t have much hope that Congress will take action. Three quarters of Americans (75%) think that Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence, while only 17% think Congress is doing enough. This disapproval is not relegated to one party. A majority of Americans disapprove of how both Republicans (70%) and Democrats (70%) are handling the issue of gun violence. Mass shootings including those at Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub, and the Las Vegas concert, each a devastating demonstration of inhumanity of gun violence, resulted in no significant legislation.
"This is not and should not be a partisan or divisive issue."
The American people’s lack of faith in the ability of Congress to pass common-sense gun control measures is, unfortunately, founded in reality. Instead of discussing and passing many of these common-sense and favored ways to mitigate gun violence in America, some politicians are talking about arming teachers and bringing more guns into schools. This defies reason. On March 13th of this year, a teacher accidentally fired a gun in a classroom and injured a student, demonstrating the increased possibility of accidents throughout the country if this were made universal. For this and other reasons, almost six in ten (58%) Americans oppose allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns on school grounds.
Despite the public’s lack of trust in Congress, the American public has not given up hope that change can happen. 77% of Americans think that the students from Parkland, Florida, who are speaking out about the shooting at their high school and the issue of gun violence, will have an impact on gun safety reform in this country.
Here is the bottom line: Congress needs to act now, and pass legislation to help improve our gun safety laws. And law enforcement must enforce those laws. The shooter in Parkland was flagged by numerous people who had concerns about what was clearly a serious mental illness, and even made reports to the FBI. The FBI failed to act, and no one has been held accountable. Local law enforcement failed to act quickly to take out the shooter when responding to the scene. Passing these laws is imperative, but such action is useless unless these laws are implemented and enforced.
This is not and should not be a partisan or divisive issue. People on all sides of this debate felt pain and sadness as our nation mourned the loss of those 17 lives in Parkland. The only way we can really solve the problems is by recognizing that we are all Americans, and we all want safe communities--a place where we can raise our families, where our children aren’t faced with the fear of a shooting when they go to school every day. We must stop demonizing each other, and instead respect each other’s humanity, and work together to find common ground. It is up to each and every one of us to choose whether we will act in love and light or darkness and hate. By focusing on the love and care that we have for one another, we can bring about real change.
Tulsi Gabbard is the U.S. Representative for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District and is a Founding Fellow of The Sanders Institute.