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Daniel Gross Headshot

It's The Unsafe Access (Stupid)

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This week our nation saw another school shooting, this time in Sparks, Nevada. On the surface it bears little resemblance to the devastating tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December and the more than 30,000 other gun deaths in our nation every year.

But when you look more deeply, there is an obvious common thread: many gun deaths across our nation every day are the result of unsafe access to guns, and could be prevented by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn't have them in the first place.

Policy is one important way to do that. Since the Brady Law was enacted 20 years ago, background checks have prevented more than two million gun sales to "prohibited purchasers" - like convicted felons and domestic abusers. These background checks have even led to the capture of thousands of fugitives.

But, 40 percent of commercial gun sales, mainly at gun shows and online, happen without a simple Brady background check to make sure the purchaser is not a criminal or dangerously mentally ill. That's thousands of unchecked sales every day, and guns that could wind up in dangerous hands.

And while closing this gaping loophole would not prevent every murder, it would certainly prevent many more people with criminal intent from getting guns, just like the original Brady Law has.

We also need to recognize that policy alone isn't the answer. The fact is, most gun deaths in our nation are the result of the 300 million guns already in circulation, mostly purchased and owned by people with decent, law-abiding intent, like hunting, collecting or protection.

Think about Sandy Hook. Certainly, Adam Lanza's mother couln't have thought the guns she brought into her home would be used to kill her, and to take the lives of 20 young students and 6 staff on that terrible day last December. Whether or not any law could have kept those guns out of Adam Lanza's hands, his mother certainly could have, if only she had acted responsibly around the risk of bringing an arsenal into her house and leaving it accessible to a son she knew had emotional issues. Similarly, in the shooting in Nevada this week, police are questioning the parents as to how their son got his gun.

And then there are the 18,000 gun suicides every year, including thousands of students and young adults under the age of 25. Expert studies show that many simply would not happen if a gun were not readily accessible and, as with many school shootings, many of these tragedies could be prevented if parents made safer and more responsible choices about guns in the home. Same goes with the many of the nine children shot unintentionally every day.

To address the deaths that occur from the guns already in homes across America, we must look beyond policy. First, we need to acknowledge that most of those guns are not purchased with unlawful or dangerous intent. Gun control advocates need to demonstrate a genuine respect that you are not a bad person if you bring a gun into your home with the goal of protecting your family. You simply may be making a more dangerous decision than you realize.

At the same time, the corporate gun lobby and those who advocate teaching kids gun safety need to acknowledge that it cannot end there. Studies have repeatedly shown that young people, even those educated, if they encounter a gun, to "stop, don't touch, leave the area and tell an adult," will readily ignore that advice, often to the shocked horror of parents who were confident their child knew better. As an advocate for the prevention of gun violence, I have met far too many parents who will spend the rest of their lives living with the devastating regret of taking false security in their children's (or their children's friends') responsibility around firearms.

To foster this important new national conversation, we need a wide-scale national public health and safety campaign, completely devoid of politics or negative judgment against responsible, law abiding gun owners. We need a campaign along the lines of "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," "Buckle up for Safety," or "Second Hand Smoke" that reframes what it means to be a responsible parent, friend or citizen, based solely on preventing dangerous access to guns and with the only goal of saving lives.

The fact is, we all agree on who should not have guns and if we could just all commit ourselves to both the education and policy efforts to keep guns out of those hands, and those hands alone, we could make this the much safer nation we all want and deserve.

When James Carville said ,"It's the economy, stupid," it wasn't meant to insult anyone. It was to emphasize a point that should be obvious, but had instead been obscured by over-complication. We need to apply that same sense of pragmatism to the national conversation about guns, in terms of both policy and public health solutions, and the best way to do that is to focus on the obvious impact of and common ground defined by preventing unsafe access to guns. When it comes down to it, the most meaningful thing we can do to prevent gun injuries and deaths is to recognize that it's the unsafe access (stupid).