Gun Violence: What We Can Do About It
Gun policy has been all over the news this year, both in reaction to terrible tragedy and as a key election issue. Fortunately, when tragedy strikes our countries and our communities, the strongest among us channel their grief into productive change. Everytown for Gun Safety is a coalition that was started primarily by survivors of such tragedies; among its members are survivors of the Aurora shooting; parents of children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook; and those who lost loved ones to countless other shootings across our country, both large and small. Partnered with the ever-inspiring Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, they’re making powerful strides to reduce gun violence on a scale never seen before. Below, Jennifer Hoppe, deputy director of Moms Demand Action (and mother of two girls herself) breaks down the issues—how the law works, who the big players are, and, most importantly, what we can do to keep our families and communities safe.
A Q&A with Jennifer Hoppe
One of the most shocking statistics we’ve seen is that in the United States, a child is four times more likely to be shot than a child in Canada, and 65 times more likely to be shot than a child in the UK. How can this be explained? Is this about our culture or about our laws?
It’s about both. As discussed earlier, there are far too many guns in dangerous hands in America—and children are among those who get hurt when guns fall into dangerous hands. But we also need to change the culture. For far too many years, the NRA has pushed a “guns everywhere, for anyone at any time” and a “shoot first, ask questions later” agenda, which is why we are also working to change our culture as well as our laws.
We do that through our corporate work, convincing companies like Target, Starbucks, Chipotle, and Trader Joes to enact policies to keep guns out of the places where families shop and dine—because no one should have to confront an armed person in the cereal aisle. We do it by convincing Facebook to bar unlicensed sales from being arranged on its platforms. And we do it through #WearOrange, our National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and through our Everytown Creative Council, chaired by Julianne Moore, which engages the creative community in advocating to end gun violence.
What is the current state of U.S. policy as it relates to gun violence prevention? How do gun laws vary by state?
Right now, federal law requires background checks for all gun sales that go through a federally licensed dealer. But Congress so far has not closed a deadly loophole that allows felons, domestic abusers, and people with dangerous mental illnesses to buy guns with no background check, no questions asked in unlicensed sales, such as those that originate online at sites like Armslist.com or at gun shows. It’s like having two lines at the airport, one where dangerous people must go through TSA screening and another line where they can skip it. We believe that everyone should play by the same rules and that all gun sales should entail a quick, 90-second background check to keep guns out of dangerous hands.
With Congress stalled on many issues, including gun violence prevention, we have consciously focused on the states. It’s a strategy similar to the one successfully employed by the marriage equality movement, which was stymied by Congress so took its work to the states and the people. Over the past few years, we have passed background check laws in six states, bringing the total number of states to close the background check loophole to 18. We have also helped pass laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in more than a dozen states and have beaten back more than 70 NRA-backed bills that would, for example, require public schools and colleges to allow people to carry guns into their buildings and onto their campuses. As a mom of two daughters, and a policy advocate, I know that even though there is more work to be done, these changes are happening with increasing speed and they are making families safer across our country.
And, while the gun lobby has been at this for a generation longer than we have, we are winning. We can see it in the states and see it in our communities. We know that 2016 will be the year of gun safety. There has been a sea change in the politics around gun violence prevention. In no small part due to our grassroots movement of more than three million supporters, politicians no longer view gun safety as the “third rail” of politics.
Who buys guns in the U.S.? Do we know if the majority of gun purchases are for self-defense, hunting, sport, resale, etc.?
Fewer and fewer people are buying guns. If you look at recent data, gun-ownership is at a nearly 40-year low. In 1978, more than half of American households owned guns; now about 36 percent of them do. But gun purchases are at high levels, meaning that the people who do own guns are buying more of them. We tend to see spikes in gun sales after tragedies, such as the recent mass shooting that killed 49 people and injured more than 50 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But the “need” to arm yourself after a tragedy is a myth perpetuated by the NRA, which uses fear-mongering to sell more guns. That’s because they have shifted over the years from an organization that once represented sportsmen and hunters to what it is now: the gun lobby that represents manufacturers.
The fear mongering appears to have had an effect: Polling indicates that more and more gun owners say they own a gun for self-defense rather than for hunting. Since 2001, the U.S. gun market has been trending toward handgun sales—mainly semiautomatic pistols. The e-magazine The Trace has reported that these trends have converged in an explosion of sales of cheap .380 caliber handguns—which lack safety features and are of limited use, but are small and concealable for people desiring to carry hidden, loaded guns in public.
To truly keep our families and Americans safe, we need to close the loopholes that make it easy for dangerous people to get guns, which is the common theme among the tragedies dominating the headlines—and the many more acts of gun violence that never make the news.
If you had to narrow down your two or three most tangible goals for the next year, what would they be? What would it take to achieve them?
As I mentioned, 2016 will be the year of gun safety. Thanks to our more than three million supporters, we are well on our way to achieving our top three priorities for 2016:
We will show once and for all that gun violence prevention is a winning issue supported by the vast majority of Americans by electing gun violence prevention champion Hillary Clinton president. She is the only candidate for president who has consistently supported criminal background checks for all gun sales and she has openly stood with survivors of gun violence and vowed to buck the NRA.
Electing Hillary Clinton president would shatter the myth that taking on the gun lobby ruins political careers. What’s more, the president has the power to affect our country’s laws and values around gun safety—by signing bills that will reduce gun violence and vetoing dangerous legislation.
We will pass initiatives requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales at the ballot box in Maine and Nevada.
We will remember the lawmakers who stand up for the safety of our families and communities and those who side with the gun lobby. We will support candidates who support common-sense gun violence prevention and hold our opponents accountable in state and federal elections.
For too long in our country, most of the passion and energy around this issue came from only one side: the gun lobby. As a result, our lawmakers listened to the gun lobby rather than the vast majority of Americans when making decisions on laws that have life-or-death consequences.
We are the grassroots movement giving voice to the other side—Americans who believe we should be safe from gun violence at schools, in houses of worship, at dance clubs, in our homes, and in our cities. We are gun-sense voters, and to make our voices heard, we must vote for candidates who support common-sense gun laws and find replacements for those who do not.
The history of the NRA’s transition from nonprofit to full-fledged lobby (laid out beautifully in the documentary Under the Gun) is fascinating. If there’s such a thing as an average NRA member, what does that person look like and how do they differ from the people in power?
The leadership of the NRA, the gun lobby for manufacturers, is out of step with the vast majority of gun owners and NRA members on issues of gun safety. In fact, a respected Republican pollster found that—contrary to the NRA’s positions—82 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of NRA members support common-sense gun reforms such as criminal background checks for all gun sales. Responsible gun owners understand that Second Amendment rights come with the responsibility to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Our Moms Demand Action volunteers include many responsible gun owners. This isn’t about the Second Amendment; it’s about common sense and safety.
Under the Gun also illustrates how gun sale records are prohibited from being digitized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, resulting in hundreds of file boxes that have to be manually moved and sorted to process any tracking requests from the FBI. How did that come about, and what would it take to digitize it today?
Starting in 2003, the NRA persuaded Congress to impose restrictions on how officials can use and share the information they gather about guns used in crimes. These so-called “Tiahrt Amendments” also bar the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from using an electronic database to organize the millions of records it holds, forcing the agency charged with enforcing gun laws in the Information Age to use a paper-based filing system. It’s a ridiculous system; to change it, we need to elect lawmakers who are willing to buck the NRA and rescind the Tihart Amendments, which can only be amended or repealed by an act of Congress.
What is a “bad apple” gun dealer, and how do gun sales work on the black market?
Every year, tens of thousands of guns recovered at crime scenes are traced back to the dealer where they were first sold. Some “bad apple” dealers have a large number of crime guns traced to them and others have few or none at all. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reviewed crime gun trace data in 1998 and found that 1.2 percent of licensed gun dealers accounted for nearly 57 percent of traces. By contrast, 86 percent of federally licensed dealers sold no guns that were later traced from crime scenes.
To help stop illegal gun sales, Everytown developed a Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership that dealers can adopt, which Wal-Mart follows. Additionally, the village of Lyons, IL recently adopted its own requirement.
The way to accomplish system-wide progress and change is to become politically active, and to vote for politicians who make gun violence prevention and bucking the NRA a priority. Are there any more immediate actions individuals can take?
We are educating Americans about the dangers of unsecured guns. So far this year, at least 179 children under the age of 18 have unintentionally shot and either injured or killed themselves or someone else, resulting in 85 deaths and 95 injuries. When we talk about keeping guns out of dangerous hands, that includes the hands of children who are able to find loaded, unsecured guns. Our Be SMART program outlines simple steps that every person reading this article can take right now to keep their kids safer: If you’re a gun owner, store your guns locked and unloaded. And no matter who you are, ask about the presence of unsecured guns anywhere your children will be—including the homes of friends, relatives, and babysitters.
The majority of gun deaths in America are suicides; in other countries with stricter gun laws, are there lower suicide rates per capita?
Suicide is a major part of the gun violence prevention puzzle, and we are working to address this critical issue. The firearm suicide rate in the U.S. is eight times that of other high-income countries. Enacting stronger laws can make a big difference: In the 18 states that go beyond federal law and require a criminal background check on all handgun sales, gun suicide rates are cut nearly in half.
Guns are by far the most lethal method of suicide, resulting in death 85 percent of the time. By contrast, methods like cutting and poisoning result in death only five to seven percent of the time. There’s research to show that many people—up to 90 percent—who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. So what can we do?
In addition to strengthening our laws, our Be SMART program mentioned above encourages parents to recognize the risks of teen suicide, and emphasizes that the presence and availability of a gun can elevate that risk. And in California after the mass shooting in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara, we worked to pass a gun violence restraining order or “red flag” law—a tool that allows law enforcement, family, and household members to help prevent shootings before they happen by petitioning a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if the person poses a significant danger to self or others.
Doing more to prevent suicides will make a big dent in overall gun deaths, and it is definitely an area where we will continue to focus in coming years.
Jennifer Hoppe is the deputy director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, part of Everytown for Gun Safety. She is the mother of two girls and lives in Virginia. Learn more at Moms Demand Action.