Almost six years ago, I lost my girlfriend, Maxine Turner, in the worst school shooting in American history. Yesterday, she would have turned twenty-eight. Some have said she was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." But she wasn't. She was in a classroom -- the right place.
Maxine's killer, Seung-Hui Cho, was the one in the wrong place at the wrong time. And over the last several years I watched as, time after time, his rights were given more weight than those of anyone else -- more than Max's right to a safe classroom, more than your right to walk down the street without feeling the need to carry a firearm, more even than the American people's right to keep guns out of the hands of known criminals and terrorists.
Wednesday morning, President Obama presented his plan for reducing gun violence in America. It respects and supports the Second Amendment (as do I, a concealed carry licensee), ensuring that upstanding, law-abiding citizens continue to have access to firearms, while also keeping weapons designed for hunting people out of the hands of known criminals.
The president made universal background checks his top priority, something I wholeheartedly support -- along with 85 percent of the American public. Currently, around forty percent of gun sales in the U.S. happen without any background check at all (so-called "private sales," which are totally legal in most states). Such unlicensed or private sales occur at gun shows held all over the country on both public and private property. Others occur over the Internet.
A key component of universal background checks is complete background checks. Maxine would still be alive today had NRA leadership not opposed including mental health adjudications in the background check system, NICS (National Instant Criminal Check System). The gun lobby swiftly about-faced after the Virginia Tech shooting, but around half of states still don't include such information. And severe mental health adjudication records are only one example.
Also included in "universal background checks" are suspects on the terror watch-list and no-fly list. NRA leadership says the lists are flawed, but refuses to help fix them; yet, confusingly, supports a national registry of the mentally ill (the overwhelming majority of which are not at all dangerous and have committed no crimes).
President Obama also proposed a new and improved ban on assault weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines. No one knows precisely what will be in the assault weapons ban bill, but I believe strongly that the two key issues are (1) how much damage a weapon can do and (2) how quickly the damage can be done. Newtown"s police chief articulated it differently, saying that the shooter had more firepower than his own officers.
Magazine size matters, too: the man who shot Congresswoman Giffords was disarmed while changing magazines. A friend from Tucson related to me that witnesses could count the bullets in that shooting. They knew exactly which shot took the life of Gabe Zimmerman. If high-capacity magazines had been banned, Gabe and others would likely still be here.
Among the President's proposals were two other important issues: an end to the gun data ban. The gun lobby has done everything it can to restrict NIH, CDC, and other public research entities from studying gun violence or gun injuries.
Further, the Tiahrt Amendments have done everything possible to restrict crime gun traces -- necessary for research and for law enforcement. During the Fast and Furious debacle, Congress actually had to ask Mexican law enforcement to request the records -- because it was illegal for BATFE to release the records to anyone other than law enforcement organizations (and even that was illegal under the original Tiahrt Amendments).
As another example of the gun data ban, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has been forbidden for some time now to use computers for its crime gun traces, a prohibition which is simultaneously arbitrary, senseless, and deadly.
It needs to be recognized, as President Obama said today, that efforts to stem gun violence cannot focus solely on mass shootings. Around thirty-two people die every day in America from gun homicides alone -- 90 if you include non-homicide deaths -- and only a tiny fraction are mass shootings.
Some have suggested that more guns are the answer -- guns in classrooms, teachers with guns, and so on. They say shooters pick "gun-free zones" because of the lack of guns. They ignore the pervasive gun violence occurring in all of the places where guns are already allowed. And anyway, they have it all backwards.
Shooters pick places where people feel safest -- schools, movie theaters, grocery stores, gymnasiums, temples, churches, universities -- places where guns aren't generally necessary. By bringing guns into these sacred places, we only succeed in further compromising public safety. When we allow killing devices in classrooms, Maxine's killer wins, and the Newtown shooter wins, and the gun manufacturers win -- but the rest of us lose. The president recognized that today.
My own personal story relates to mass shootings, but I work on this issue because no one should have to experience what we experienced in 2007, or what Newtown has experienced in the last 33 days. We can respect the right to bear arms while also respecting the right to not bear arms everywhere we go.