When my brother was shot in the head on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in 1997, I felt I had to choose between focusing on two important issues: gun violence and terrorism. The man who shot my brother, killed our friend, and wounded five others that day used a semi-automatic handgun he purchased far too easily in Florida. He was also from Gaza and had a note on him saying he was targeting the Empire State Building to "strike in the heart of Zion." He killed himself on the scene and was regarded as a martyr back home.
I chose to focus my passion on the easy access of guns to dangerous people because it seemed the greater opportunity to impact the bigger issue. Most people agree on who shouldn't have guns, and just by keeping guns out of those hands, we have a tremendous opportunity to prevent many of the 90 gun deaths that happen every day in our nation.
But now, having spent the last 15 years dedicated to preventing gun violence, it is apparent that I made a false choice. The reality is, as an advocate for gun reform, I am also, in a very real way, fighting terror.
I appreciate the literal difference. Terrorism is politically motivated, and most gun violence in our nation is not. But when it comes to the impact of the easy availability of guns, it is hard to argue against the premise that we are being terrorized.
I am a New Yorker. I knew people who were lost on 9/11. I remember what it was like to walk around our great city in the weeks, months, even years after that attack. Our sense of security was lost. Every time we entered a subway or followed a rental truck into the Lincoln Tunnel we thought about it. Fear became interwoven with the fabric of our daily lives. We were truly terrorized. Sometimes it felt like our entire city was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the terror that we felt after 9/11 is no different than what people in many parts of our nation feel every day. Children in some neighborhoods do not feel safe walking to school in the morning, and hear gunshots outside their windows at night. The only difference between the terror they feel and what we felt after 9/11 is that, in terms of an actual threat, their fear is far more justified. In fact, researchers have concluded that young people in many of these communities show clear symptoms of real post-traumatic stress disorder, only there is nothing "post" about it. They continue to live with the threat of violence every single day.
Then there are those fortunate enough not to live in the cities and neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence -- those of us who are robbed of a little more of our innocence with every new shooting at a school or movie theater or workplace. Parents who never used to think twice about the safety of their children when they send them to school but now do. That is what terrorism does - it eats away at our peace of mind. Even if these acts of gun violence are not literal terrorism, the impact on our society is one and the same.
The last two weeks have seen three horrific acts of mass gun violence: the shooting at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard; thirteen shot in a park in Chicago, including a three year-old boy; and a horrific terrorist attack in Nairobi. But when we look at all three acts in terms of their impact on society, what really is the difference? They all create terror.
In a nation that has devoted such significant resources to fighting terror, we should pay at least as much attention to addressing the every day terror created through gun violence. There is a far greater chance of any of us being killed by a bullet in our home or neighborhood than there is being killed in a terrorist attack. Should we not be every bit as committed -- in the name of patriotism -- to preventing that?
Then there is the threat of real terrorism. That alone should be motivation enough for Congress to focus on background checks for gun sales. In every other way we are obsessed with preventing terrorism -- identifying those that pose a danger and keeping weapons, like explosives, out of their hands. It is counter-intuitive that our Senate cannot pass a bill that simply requires background checks on all gun sales, so we know we're not selling them to dangerous people.
To be clear, given our background check laws, anyone -- whether a convicted felon, domestic abuser or, yes, a known terrorist -- can walk into a gun show or go online and buy as many guns as they want without any background check. At this very moment there are tens of thousands of guns available online where anyone, including someone bent on terrorism, can buy an arsenal of AR-15's and high capacity magazines with no questions asked.
Especially in light of the horrific attack in Nairobi, Congress should consider our lack of background checks for gun purchases a huge red flag. We saw at Fort Hood and, on a smaller scale, my family's tragedy, the kind of damage that can be done by someone with a gun and the intent to commit terrorism. By refusing to address background checks, Congress is making us far more susceptible to that kind of attack. In fact, an al-Qaeda manual entitled "How Can I Train Myself for Jihad" recovered in Kabul advises would be terrorists in the U.S. to "obtain an assault weapon legally, preferably AK-47 or variations."
Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association tried to diminish the massive background check issue by saying expanded checks would only address private sales between friends. That is a blatant and dangerous mischaracterization. In fact, those types of sales were specifically exempted from background checks in the bill that was defeated in the Senate in April, thanks to LaPierre and the corporate gun lobby.
Forty percent of gun sales in our country go unchecked. These are not sales among friends. They represent a giant industry through gun shows and the Internet, one that makes it easy for anyone determined to wreak havoc to get a gun. It is more than a loophole. You can drive a truck through it, and it is more dangerous than that truck filled with explosives. Addressing this problem would not pose an inconvenience to law abiding gun owners, certainly nothing that rivals what we endure at TSA screenings every time we fly. Isn't a background check worth the inconvenience if it can help prevent even losing just one of the eight children and teens shot every day?
Of the 46 senators who voted against expanding Brady Background Checks in April, it's a safe bet that they would all list homeland security as an important priority. Their reason would probably be about their duty to protect the safety of the American people. Yet, these same members of Congress repeatedly shirk that responsibility on an issue that claims more lives in a few months than all of the acts of terrorism in the history of this nation combined.
Clearly this hypocrisy alone, even magnified by horrific mass shootings, is not enough to get Congress to act; and we cannot expect anything to change until we, the American people are willing to stand up and hold our elected leaders accountable to represent our well-being ahead of the corporate gun lobby's -- and to act in the true interest of our homeland security.
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