As The Faithful Budget 2014 makes clear, our society, and especially our youth, suffer from the prevalence of guns and violence in our nation. “As the most heavily-armed society in the world, the firearm-related death rate among U.S. children younger than 15 years of age is nearly 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized countries combined. Research shows that our habits of violence are socially and financially costly compared to other nations.” (p. 43). For many years, NETWORK has supported efforts in Congress to counter gun violence along with many other groups.
Since January 2011, when 24 national faith groups announced the formation of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence,” NETWORK has worked with this group to confront America’s gun violence epidemic and to rally support for policies that reduce death and injury from gunfire. By 2014 the group had grown to more than 50 supporting members, including Jewish, Sikh and Muslim supporters, representing over 80 million Americans in faith communities across the nation -- far, far more than NRA members.
With each passing year more gun violence is perpetrated in our communities, and the call to confront this unbridled gun violence has grown ever more urgent. In light of mass-shooting tragedies in Newton, Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Oak Creek, Isla Vista and so many more communities, NETWORK and others who are part of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence” believe that we have a moral obligation to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others.
While we continue to pray for the families and friends of those who died as a result of gun violence and share in their grief, we must also support our prayers with action. And that action requires legislators, especially in Congress, to support gun control laws.
After the Newton, CT massacre, President Obama charged Vice President Biden (December 2012) with overseeing an administration-wide process to develop proposals for Congress to pass. Those proposals were unveiled in January 2013 when the president announced a series of executive actions he could take administratively along with several legislative proposals for Congress. Together, they involved not just access to firearms and ammunition but also school safety and mental health care. His own executive actions were relatively modest since the main problems demanded legislative changes.
However, Congress took up only one of the many proposals of Vice President Biden's task force, the Manchin-Toomey bill, which failed to receive sufficient votes in the Senate in April 2013. The bill attempted to expand background checks at gun shows and for online sales. Unfortunately, the Senate has never revisited this issue, despite strong public support. (Ninety-two percent of Americans supported universal background checks in late 2013.) Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) initially said he would try to bring the background checks bill back for a vote by the end of 2014, but has since acknowledged that the votes are not there. Currently, background checks – aimed at preventing criminals and people with mental illness from acquiring weapons – are required only for sales handled by licensed federal gun dealers.
An attempt in early 2014 by a small number of Democrats in the House to expand background checks for all commercial gun sales and make gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (those in the business of reselling weapons) a federal crime, ended up merely as a resolution and never made it to the floor of the House. The official position of House Republicans has been that existing gun laws are not being adequately enforced, an issue that is strongly debated by gun control advocates.
Research demonstrates that in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where background checks are required for private sales, gun trafficking is 48% lower, the rate at which women are killed with a gun by an intimate partner is 38% lower, and the gun suicide rate is 49% lower.
Four Senate Democrats are up for reelection in conservative states this November, making it less likely that Reid will force a controversial vote, according to the Huffington Post. We believe that the price of political inaction is unconscionable because innocent lives must be protected.
Only modest proposals that can garner votes on both sides of the aisle will probably be considered this year (2014) – such as one by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D- MN) that would add convicted stalkers to the list of criminals barred from acquiring guns. This type of caution has characterized Democratic bills even in years when no elections took the spotlight, but the NRA had spent millions of dollars fattening campaign chests of both parties.
Another modest bill that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and in the House by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) on May 22, 2014 would give the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) $10 million a year to conduct or support research on firearms safety or gun control prevention (both the Department of Justice and the NIH also sponsor research on firearms issues and their funds have not disappeared). Prior to 1996 the CDC budget had been relatively flush with firearms research funds, but since 1996 it has been almost nonexistent thanks to opposition from Republicans. However, neither Markey nor Maloney has been able to attract any Republican support for their bills.
On May 29, the House approved a measure that would modestly increase funding for the nation's background checks system, probably in response to the killing spree in Isla Vista, California. The amendment, which passed with a vote of 260 to 145, would provide an additional $19.5 million in funding for grants to states to improve their reporting to the national database. That database, the NICS, is designed to keep guns out of the hands of those with felony convictions and certain mental health issues. Given that the bill simply offers a modest boost to the existing program and that the NRA adopted a neutral stance toward the bill, the Senate is highly likely to pass it, too. This bill is just a minor step in the uphill battle to enact stricter gun laws and ignores the wide gaps that exist in the background checks system, but it allows Congress to refute arguments about its inaction on the issue of gun control.
As the issue of gun control has ebbed in Congress, it has accelerated in the states, where legislatures are debating hundreds of gun-related bills, some weakening and others strengthening restrictions. Let's look at a couple of measures, the first of which could serve as a model for national reform, and the second deals with the mental health issue, a major problem in several recent massacres.
The Supreme Court ended Chicago's 30-year ban on handguns in 2010. The mayor's office has just proposed some reasonable measures that are designed to withstand Constitutional challenges, according to a New York Times editorial. Using zoning regulations, the city would limit gun shops to less than 1% of the city's geographic area, would tightly audit the shops, limit sales to one handgun per customer per month and videotape the sale, and require a 72-hour waiting period to complete the purchase. Yes, people can probably easily acquire weapons in surrounding states and suburbs (which demonstrates that Congress must ensure a national response to this problem) and these measures do not address the full scope of Chicago's gun problems, but they should stop buyers who shop in volume and funnel guns into the underworld.
The other example hails from California. In 2013, a consortium of mental health professionals urged the federal government to extend its prohibition of gun ownership not only to those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution (current law), but also to those who have been involuntarily committed to outpatient treatment, if they pose a danger to themselves or others. These specialists also proposed that people should be prevented from buying guns if they have been convicted of a violent misdemeanor, have been subject to a domestic violence restraining order, convicted of drunken driving two or more times in a span of five years, or convicted of two misdemeanors involving a controlled substance in five years. When these proposals were ignored in Washington, California passed many of them.
While it is generally agreed that passage of the mental health measures listed above would not necessarily have deterred many of the devastating shootings that have bedeviled our nation recently, that argument should not prevent our attempts to deter gun violence. No single law will ever prevent all violence. We cannot allow the NRA to induce a feeling of hopelessness among those who seek to address gun violence. We must continue, as long as the second amendment is misinterpreted by gun advocates (see below), to press for new restrictions.
Why is gun control such a divisive issue? Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center of Justice at NYU, has made some surprising discoveries in his new book The Second Amendment: A Biography. The most significant is that the second amendment was debated the least of all the amendments that constitute our Bill of Rights. This could have been due to our founders' deep suspicion of a standing army (which, in their minds, was synonymous with tyranny) and their assumption that all male citizens would belong to armed local militias. Being armed was considered a duty. Virtually every reference in early documents to “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” concerned military defense. There is nothing about a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any other purpose other than being part of the militia.
The second amendment did not become controversial until 1977 when the National Rifle Association (NRA) was taken over by second amendment fundamentalists who set out to change the entire meaning of the amendment and took our founders’ words out of context. From that time to the present the right to own guns has become conservative dogma. The New York Times’ review of Waldman’s book concludes that he is indeed persuasive in tying the right to bear arms with a well-regulated militia. Once militias were replaced by