In Arizona, Gun Control Advocates Bring Campaign To Giffords' Backyard

03/28/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Victims of the Arizona shootings and their families gathered in downtown Tucson on Monday to support a national campaign to improve gun background checks. The event took place just a few miles from where a gunman fatally shot six people, and wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others, on Jan. 8, 2011.

Ross Zimmerman, whose 30-year-old son Gabriel Zimmerman was killed in the shootings, said he hoped the rally would help address the need to create programs in Tucson that help gun sellers identify mentally unstable individuals.

"I'm not educated on the details of the gun laws," he told HuffPost on Monday, "but there are some things that are pretty obvious, like background checks."

The rally was part of the "Mayors Against Illegal Guns" campaign spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The campaign is designed to raise national awareness of flaws the coalition of 550 U.S. mayors sees in the federal system of background checks for firearm purchases.

The "National Drive to Fix Gun Checks" truck will spend two months driving across at least 25 states, displaying a tally of the number of Americans killed with guns since January's shootings. Monday's stop in Tucson, in Gifford's home district, held a particular significance.

"What brought folks together was the political process and free speech," said Zimmerman of the forces that drew Arizonans to the supermarket in downtown Tucson the day of the tragedy.

"It was a diverse group of people who got shot ... so families are grieving in diverse ways," he said. "My own approach to things, my own coping mechanism has been to think things out and try to move forward; I'm not very good at denial. Other folks have had more issues with depression. I've certainly been depressed."

Others who attended Monday's rally included Peter Rhee, the University Medical Center trauma chief who treated victims of the Tucson shootings, and Patricia Maisch, who helped subdue the gunman.

Bloomberg's gun control campaign is working to address the millions of records that are missing from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The Virginia Tech shooter was able to purchase a firearm because his information was never submitted to the system. In response to that shooting, Congress passed legislation to improve the system in 2007, but the bill was underfunded and noncompliance penalties too weak. Almost four years later, 28 states and the District of Columbia still have fewer than 100 mental health records each in the system.

And in many cases, guns can still be sold without background checks. Although federally-licensed gun dealers are required to conduct checks on prospective gun-buyers, "occasional sellers" dealing at gun shows or other informal venues are under no such obligation under current law.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) recently introduced the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 (S.436), legislation that would require all gun buyers to undergo a background check and increase penalties for states that fail to comply.

Under Schumer's legislation -- which was based on a proposal first developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns -- all gun sales, including those by private sellers, would be subject to a background check, effectively closing the so-called gun-show loophole.

The legislation would also require that states submit a higher percentage of their records on individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Financial penalties for states that fail to comply would be increased: instead of having 3 percent of federal justice funds cut, as is currently the law, non-compliers would face a 25 percent cut in federal justice funds by 2018.

Bloomberg's mayoral coalition is calling on Congress to ensure that the names of people ineligible to buy a gun--including felons, the mentally ill and domestic abusers--are kept in a single database, and to require that every would-be gun purchaser undergo a background check.

The petition has garnered more than 250,000 signatures nationally, and 6,784 in Arizona, since its website launched in February.