How Many Deaths Will It Take…

by John Lawrence

How many 747 jumbo airliners would have to crash, with a total loss of life, before the United States Congress would act? I am guessing that after a couple of such disasters, the Congress call a hearing or two, drag everyone from the aircraft designers to the window washers up, and require that they answer questions for 11 hours.

Well, we lose to gun violence every year the same number of fatalities as if 77 fully loaded 747s crashed with a total loss of life. About 32,000 deaths annually – every year. We have had a mass shooting almost every day this year. Yet Congress has done little but continue to succumb to intimidation by the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association.

The reluctance to act on gun legislation reflects fear of campaign contributions and grassroots campaigns rather than responsiveness to the 70+% of the public that supports reasonable gun restrictions such as expanded background checks. Congress, it seems, would prefer to let the children in elementary schools, worshippers in churches, women seeking reproductive health care, disabled people seeking supportive services, and all of those who love them, live in terror rather than face down the gunslingers.

It doesn’t really matter, or so it seems, if the victims are in Sandy Hook or San Bernadino, John Kennedy or John Lennon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr. – or hundreds of thousands of lesser known victims. The United States, alone in the world among so-called “advanced nations,” sanctions the virtually unregulated ownership of weapons of destruction by private citizens, hunters and lunatics alike.

There is plenty of blame to go around. It is true; former Rep. John Dingell was a patsy for the NRA throughout his entire record tenure in Congress. And there are plenty of other Democrats, including many very decent people like Bernie Sanders, who can come up with one rationale or another for inaction. But what they can’t do is say they haven’t been warned, because every year, year after year, the gruesome statistics and horrific images are reliably reported.

Now here’s a headline that should cause grave concern to anyone not on a terrorist watch list:

 Republicans Kill Amendment That Would Have Prevented Suspected Terrorists From Buying Firearms

The story reported that House Republicans unanimously blocked a vote (yes, it was a technical “Motion to Recommit”) on the bipartisan “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act” that would tell even members of a “well-regulated militia” that they can’t buy guns if they are on the federal no-fly list.

Surprisingly, that headline actually appeared on May 12, 2011 – that’s four and a half years ago: before Sandy Hook, before San Bernadino, before Planned Parenthood or Umpqua College or Emanuel AME Church. That vote occurred following release of a Government Accountability Office report documenting that individuals on the federal terror watch list were able to purchase firearms from licensed dealers more than 1,000 times. More recently, the Government Accountability Office  reported that between 2004 and 2014, people listed on one terror watch list – over 2,000 of them — were allowed to buy weapons 91% of the time.

Now here’s the question for Congress: if you aren’t prepared to debate how to stop people identified as potential terrorists from buying guns, what possible claim to leadership can you make? All that hot air about the Second Amendment’s sanctity is just so much bloviating: we have already violated that “sanctity” by restricting the sale of guns to ten categories of people including convicted felons and those with severe mental illness. Why can’t we have a conversation about adding “potential terrorists” to that list?

Well, we all know why: because the GOA and NRA have money to burn, sophisticated grassroots organization, skilled political operatives, and can run circles around most elected officials. Many still believe the main reason Democrats lost the House in 1994 was because of the assault weapon ban, and that questionable connection is more than sufficient to temper the willingness of many to revisit the issue.

But let’s be clear: this is a Republican problem. Sure, there are a few outliers among Democrats who would vote the NRA line, but many of the old line gun group toadies like Dingell are gone and some who once quaked before the NRA have turned around on the issue. Hillary Clinton deserves real credit for stepping into the gun debate despite the wariness of many Democratic officeholders.

It is the leadership of the Congress, which is Republican, that won’t even let the vote happen; won’t even let the debate occur. Nancy Pelosi recently suggested that the House create a Select Committee on Gun Violence instead of a new committee to investigate women’s health providers, but that suggestion has been ignored.

If murdering kids in an elementary school or people in a movie theater or worshippers in a church or students on a campus — if all that horror isn’t going to move the craven politicians to consider how we might reduce the availability of guns, then the answer does not lie in more data or in appeals to reason. It will be very difficult to beat the NRA unless people in Congress, and individuals and organizations outside Congress, are prepared to engage in the same intense level of political activism to which the gun groups devote themselves.

Three steps are essential:

  1. Take advantage of a high level of public outrage and immediately convene a bipartisan, high-level summit of political, business, police, military, religious and other leaders to develop an appropriate response to the torrent of gun violence.
  2. Identify a limited number of discrete, achievable steps that enjoy broad public support – ban large ammunition magazines, mandate universal background checks, ban all gun sales to people on no-fly lists — and hold candidates accountable on these issues at every public appearance, publicizing their responses.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, identify a small number of pro-gun candidates who are most vulnerable and throw whatever resources that can be mustered at them to defeat them. Nothing will demonstrate effectiveness like replacing gun lobby loyalists with more courageous members of Congress who listen to public opinion.   The effort must be surgically targeted to the few races where the chances for success are most promising.

Maybe there are better strategies, but whatever has been tried to this point has not been enough to move the debate, or even start the debate, in Congress.  Indeed, it is likely, especially under the current management, it’s a bad idea to demand votes in a Congress that clearly is geared to support the gun lobby.  A new strategy and a renewed determination needs to come from the millions of Americans who are appalled by the endless massacres in our country, and disgusted by the gutless passivity with which the Congress acquiesces.   Gun reformers demonstrate they can inflict political damage by wrenching some of the pro-gun proponents out of their seats, thereby  proving it is possible to compete with the NRA at their own game and beat them. Nothing less will likely have the slightest impact.