“I have supported legislation in the past which would place reasonable and careful restrictions on the use of firearms, and I am co-sponsoring S.1… I believe this bill would impose necessary controls without unduly curtailing the use of firearms for legitimate sport shooting or hunting, and without curtailing the lawful activity of sport gun clubs.
Basically this legislation would only subject deadly weapons to the same control we have always imposed on automobiles, liquor or prescription drugs. The use and sale of these items are carefully regulated by Federal, State, and local government. The same should be true of firearms.” -Senator Robert F. Kennedy, May 2, 1967
With the echo of gunshots from the San Bernardino massacre ricocheting across the country, and another American community reeling with new broken hearts, it sounds like a reasonable plea for common sense legislation a responsible lawmaker might make today. This quote from Senator Robert Kennedy’s letter to a constituent was written just over a year before he would be assassinated by a gun on June 6, 1968 in Los Angeles. Since Robert Kennedy’s and Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 deaths more than 164,000 children have died from gun violence in America—three times more than all the American soldiers killed in action in the Vietnam War and every external conflict since.
In the decades since the deaths of Senator Kennedy and Dr. King very little has changed. Mass shootings have become the new normal. Since the beginning of this year we’ve had on average more than one a day. After a new mass shooting makes headlines our national discussion of gun violence feels and sounds like a broken record stuck on one horrifying song that never ends. The president expresses his outrage that these tragedies continue to happen and calls on the public to push Congress and state legislatures to do the right thing. Members of Congress release proposals without a clear timetable for a vote or a path to passage. Public support for gun safety measures swells. The gun lobby pushes back, accusing those who seek reform of politicizing tragedy while continuing their relentless work to loosen restrictions on the deadly weapons that continue the carnage. Broken families and communities struggle to pick up the pieces after the media leaves town. With too few exceptions nothing gets done and nothing seems to change and every day Americans not living in the immediately affected communities grow numb to the tragedy and continue their normal lives until the next mass shooting inevitably occurs and the cycle repeats itself.
These horrible mass shootings that destroy and shake up so many lives with ever-increasing frequency tell only part of the tragic cost of gun violence that pervades our cities and towns every single day across our nation. Violence romps through our children’s playgrounds, terrifies them in their schools and child care centers, follows them down the street, and shoots through their bedroom windows. This should be the chief public health issue in America. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control earlier this year show there was a death by a gun every 16 minutes and a child or teen was killed or injured by a gun every 30 minutes in 2013. More than 2,400 children and teens died from guns, enough to fill 122 classrooms of 20 children. Why in God’s name are we so reticent to stand up to the pro-gun lobby when American children are 18 times more likely to die by a gun than children in 25 other high income nations? Are we so spiritually dead that the killing of children has become routine and unimportant? Where is the faith community?
While mass shootings grab fleeting public and policymaker attention we too often ignore the relentless everyday trauma of gun violence that snuffs out the lives of more American children and teens every four days than the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. How can we remain numb to the day in and day out cries of children and others robbed of their childhoods, robbed of their lives, or scarred for life by guns and bullets we have the power but not the decency, courage, and will to stop? Dr. King warned us that America may go to hell if we didn’t deal with the violence of poverty in his last Sunday sermon. I am sure he would say we were going to go to hell as well today if we don’t stop the violence of guns that is ravaging our families and communities and terrifying our children. We must act to save our country’s soul.
Lessons from America’s public health history points us to what we can do now to stop the carnage. The public health approach to problem solving has been credited with a range of achievements, including adding 25 years to the life expectancy of people in the United States in the 20th century. One of the greatest victories of this approach has been a massive decline in automobile deaths. Few today can imagine getting in a car without an airbag, a seat belt, or a proper child safety seat. These safety devices and the laws we follow while on the road were not always in place—and American roadways were not always as safe as they are today. It took a concentrated effort by researchers, policymakers, and the public to identify and address the root causes of the epidemic of motor vehicle deaths before the 1960s.
Research efforts led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a revolution in vehicle safety, better designed roads, and increased enforcement of laws to get drunk drivers off the roads. According to Dr. Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health and former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “What we did in the ‘60s, redesigning the car, redesigning the roadway, redesigning the drivers, was a result of scientific research, and as a result we have saved, between the ‘60s and the beginning of this century, 325,000 lives.” Dr. Rosenberg and many other public health professionals believe the same approach can help end today’s epidemic of gun violence which is ravaging and terrorizing our nation.
Recent gun violence prevention research should help point the way forward. A recent study found that a Connecticut law that expanded background checks to all handgun purchases helped achieve a 40 percent reduction in gun homicides during the first 10 years following the law’s enactment. Another study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found states with background checks on private as well as online gun sales had 16 percent lower gun fatality rates. Polling consistently shows a vast majority of Americans, including a large majority of gun owners, support expanding background checks to cover all gun sales—yet Congress has not yet demonstrated its capacity to act on such a simple, life-saving measure. As a result guns can be purchased without background checks from unlicensed private sellers and over the internet with no checks at all. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports some progress in states on expanding background checks but federal law changes are needed to ensure people cannot just traffic guns from states with weaker laws to those with stronger ones. Eighteen states and D.C. have extended background check requirements beyond federal law. It’s way past time for citizens to retire members of Congress and state legislators who put gun manufacturer profits ahead of child, family, and human safety.
Some say that background checks alone will not prevent every gun tragedy and they won’t, but they are a critically important step forward. We need more research on laws, other policies, and technologies that might save more lives. Proposals to require background checks for ammunition sales, impose a tax on ammunition, require liability insurance for guns, and smart gun technologies all merit immediate attention. Sadly, the National Rifle Association, other members of the gun lobby, and their cowardly allies in Congress and in many state legislatures have barred the CDC from conducting research and sharing the truth about the impact of gun violence on our nation’s public health since the mid-1990’s and imposed similar restrictions on the National Institutes of Health in 2011 due to fears that research might show concrete ways to reduce its deadly impacts. Just this week physicians’ organizations including Doctors for America, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Student Association, and others delivered a petition to Congress from more than 2,000 doctors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia urging Congress to remove these barriers and provide funding for such research. Even former Representative Jay Dickey, who took the lead in banning CDC research on gun violence, has expressed his regrets in the wake of recent mass killings.
Why is the NRA afraid of the truth? Is it because they fear the research may show concrete ways to reduce the impact of guns which sapped 33,169 lives in America in 2013 and injured 83,075 yet remain the only unregulated consumer product? It makes no sense to regulate toy guns which kill not a single person and let real guns which should only be in the hands of the military kill tens of thousands annually. We should protect human beings rather than guns. Might not the truth make us all safer? We should retire the NRA as the director of our public health research.
If we truly want to end the cycle of death and violence from guns that pervades our daily lives, we must stop being numb and doing nothing in the face of tragedy. And we should stop normalizing growing gun violence including assault weapons by selling them over the counter as if they were toasters or fishing poles. We must not be placated or deterred by angry words and hand-wringing and proposals that die with a whimper in Congress and in some state legislatures and local governing bodies. All of us—Democrats, Republicans, and independents, gun owners and non-gun owners—must stand up and demand every day that our leaders treat gun violence in America as the public health epidemic that it is and take the steps necessary to save the lives of thousands of our children, families, and all those victimized by relentless, preventable gun violence. Polling consistently shows that the gun lobby does not speak for America, American gun owners, or even a majority of NRA members. Until we shake off our sense of hopelessness and apathy in the face of persistent tragedy and bullying by the pro-gun lobby in our communities, Congress and state legislatures will continue to do their bidding, putting their political lives ahead of the lives of our children and families and citizens who they are sworn to represent. It’s way past time to combine “thoughts and prayers” with action and vote out those who place protecting guns higher than protecting babies and children and mothers and fathers. It’s way past time for the American people to retire the NRA as our head of national security and public health and assure the safety of our children and families everywhere in America. Only then can we reclaim our nation’s soul and affirm our commitment to the sanctity of life for all.