Weak Gun Laws Make Us Sitting Ducks for Lunatics: Paul Helmke

Weak Gun Laws Make Us Sitting Ducks for Lunatics
People gather to pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside of the District Office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Photographer: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gabe Zimmerman, John Roll and Christina Taylor Green, once a little ballerina, have something in common. They, along with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others are now, very sadly, on the bloody roll of the almost 1 million people who have been shot over the past 10 years in America; more than 300,000 of them, like Gabe, John and 9-year-old Christina, were killed.

And yet, too many of our leaders in Washington have ignored the wishes and pleas of the majority of Americans who want to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns. Instead, this nation’s minimal gun laws have been weakened further.

Will these tragic deaths, from this latest high-profile shooting in Tucson, Arizona, last weekend, finally get Congress to realize that what America is doing now concerning guns isn’t working? What we’re doing now is making us less safe.

While we don’t know all the details, we know Jared Loughner was deemed too dangerous to attend college. We know he had been arrested on drug charges and rejected for enlistment by the military. We know his college classmates were terrified he would shoot them. And we know that, even still, he was allowed to buy a semi-automatic pistol (the same model used by the Virginia Tech killer) and multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines.

No Permit

We know that Arizona allowed him to carry his hidden arsenal, without any permit or approval. And we know that on Saturday he shot as many as 20 people, leaving a U.S. representative critically injured, and six people dead.

The killer’s high-capacity magazines “gave him a tactical advantage,” according to one federal law-enforcement official. “There’s absolutely no doubt the magazines increased the lethality and the body count of this attack.”

The expired federal assault-weapons law -- adopted in 1994 -- forbade the sale of new ammunition magazines that held more than 10 rounds. But the gun lobby’s friends in Congress failed to renew this law in 2004. As a result, America has no legal barrier to hinder sick and disturbed people from buying new clips that enable the firing of dozens of rounds without reloading.

Tragically, it has usually taken a high-profile shooting to spur Congress into action on guns. After an attempted assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and the murder of the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak), and the gangster violence of the Prohibition era, Congress in 1934 placed strong restrictions on fully automatic weapons.

Brady Bill

Then with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Congress defined categories of dangerous people (like felons and some mentally ill) who weren’t supposed to buy guns. The 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady, spurred wife Sarah Brady to push for stronger laws, ultimately leading to the Brady Bill, requiring licensed gun dealers to do criminal-background checks on people buying guns, and the now-expired assault-weapon ban.

But those three sets of laws are about all we have at the national level to help us reduce gun violence. And most states, including Arizona, do nothing more.

After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, efforts to close the gun-show loophole by requiring background checks by all sellers at gun shows passed the Senate, but failed in the House. After the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, the Brady Campaign, and survivors and families of those shot at the university, pushed Congress to give incentives to states to send in more records to the Brady background-check system.

Missing Records

As a result, more than 1 million records are now in the system -- though an estimated 2 million more records of prohibited purchasers are still missing.

But today, loopholes in federal law allow private sellers to sell guns without a background check, military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines are legal, and in most states (including Arizona) law enforcement has almost no authority to prevent dangerous people from carrying guns in public. As a result, America stands out among industrialized countries for its horrific levels of gun violence -- which has now touched one of Congress’s most-admired members.

We need to make sure our leaders never forget the families torn apart by the violence in Tucson -- or the 100 other people shot every day in America. Hear us this time, Washington, and know that it’s time to do the bidding of the people. Enact the common-sense laws we need to make our families and communities safer, and in the name of the almost 1 million who have suffered and lost so much, begin a new era of preventing gun violence.

(Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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