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New Day Dawning for Gun Violence Prevention

By Paul Helmke, Brady Campaign president

Last year at this time, I said that America was turning a corner on the gun issue, and the watershed events of 2008 confirmed that prediction.

The past year brought fundamental change to the way we understand and talk about gun violence prevention.  The year also offered hope for the future, as the Brady Campaign endorsed – and our grassroots activists helped elect – Barack Obama as President of the United States, along with many other new officeholders who support taking steps to reduce gun violence.

Looking ahead to 2009, we are optimistic about making significant progress in our fight for common sense gun laws to help make our families and communities safer.

Reducing the toll of 100,000 Americans killed or wounded every year by gunfire – including 20,000 children and teens – is a concern of many of these new and returning officeholders. For the first time in decades, there is reason to hope that we can end the polarization in our politics that has kept us from enacting laws to reduce that terrible statistic, while also respecting Second Amendment rights as defined by the Supreme Court last summer.

President-elect Obama's statements were consistent – to gun owners, gun violence victims, and to all Americans – that he would uphold the Second Amendment and support common sense gun control laws that help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.  We have no doubt that he will keep his promise.  As then-Senator Obama said while accepting the Democratic nomination for President in Denver:

The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

Looking back at 2008, the year began on a positive note on January 8 with President George W. Bush signing the first major new gun control law in a decade: the NICS Improvement Act. Passage of the Act was aided by the powerful testimony of families and survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre, as well as the persistent determination of members of Congress such as Representative Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Charles Schumer. This new law helps close a loophole in the Brady criminal background check system that allowed the Virginia Tech killer to buy the semi-automatic handguns he used in the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

While a few states have taken the lead to provide more records of prohibited purchasers to the Brady background check system since last January, too many states have not. Out of an estimated 2.6 million records of the dangerously mentally ill in this country, less than 20 percent have been provided to the Brady background check system so far. The 2009 legislative session offers states a new opportunity to do their part and make sure that dangerous people don't pass a Brady background check because of incomplete information, as the Virginia Tech killer did.

Last year's 110th session of Congress also bears some responsibility for this shortfall in records. Rather than appropriate funds for the NICS Improvement Act to help states forward more records of dangerous people to the system, Congress spent more time on second-guessing the gun ordinances of a local government instead. The Brady Campaign's U.S. Senate allies, however, successfully blocked efforts by some members of Congress to act as a super-City Council for the people of the District of Columbia.

In the spring of 2008, the nation marked the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. On April 16, the Brady Campaign joined surviving victims and families of those killed in that terrible shooting – as well as activists from (a grassroots anti-gun violence organization founded by Abigail Spangler) – to observe the day. Events were held in over 100 cities and towns across the country in public squares, college campuses and even in front of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on the evening of a debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and then-Senator Obama.

Activists gathered in groups of about 32 people, wore maroon and orange ribbons (Virginia Tech's colors) and rested on the ground in silent protest of the nation's weak gun laws, calling on their elected officials to close the gun show loophole. It was an amazing outpouring of grassroots support for stronger, common sense gun laws.

Powerful as that occasion was, an even more significant event for gun violence prevention advocates came in June when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of District of Columbia v. Heller.  This landmark opinion fundamentally changed the way most people should now think and talk about the gun control issue – though not in the way many observers expected.  It must be said, however, that two weeks before the opinion was handed down, the Brady Campaign correctly predicted the outcome of the Heller decision and what that would mean, as events in the Autumn would soon confirm.

While we opposed the Court's decision to overrule 70 years of precedent and over 200 years of Second Amendment history, gun violence prevention advocates praised Section III of Justice Antonin Scalia's decision to find a wide variety of gun control regulations "presumptively lawful" under the Constitution. Such laws include restrictions against carrying concealed weapons, laws against gun possession by felons and the mentally ill, laws against taking guns into "sensitive places" such as schools and government buildings, and laws that restrict "dangerous and unusual" weapons. Indeed, Justice Scalia stated that his list of "presumptively lawful" regulations comprised only examples, and was "not exhaustive."

The fundamental outcome of the Heller decision is that the Supreme Court made it clear that gun violence prevention efforts and the Second Amendment are compatible. The practical effect of this approach is that it takes the extremes of the gun debate off the table. On one hand, total gun bans aren't even a theoretical option anymore – a result that doesn't affect our work because the Brady Campaign doesn't favor such a policy. On the other hand, the preference of some in the gun lobby for any gun, any place, at any time, with few or no restrictions, is also off the table – a result that ironically leaves the National Rifle Association's leadership in a political box.

Why?  After Heller, there is clearly a right to own a gun for self-defense in the home, while guns may still be regulated by our elected officials in order to protect public safety.  Since the Supreme Court has affirmed the Constitutional right to own a gun while also affirming most restrictions on guns as "presumptively lawful," the doomsday scenarios advanced by the gun lobby of a slippery-slope to total gun confiscation are totally make-believe. The reality is that the Supreme Court's middle ground position is exactly where the American people are, and it has helped push the gun debate away from squabbling about 200-year-old history into practical discussions about how to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people today.

For example, a June 2008 CNN poll found that while 67% of Americans believe the Second Amendment guarantees each person the right to own a gun, 79% of Americans favor requiring gun owners to register their guns with the local government.  That result tracks with polling of Election 2008 voters on behalf of the Brady Campaign by the Washington, DC public opinion firm Penn, Schoen & Berland.  Voters in November supported common sense gun laws across partisan and ideological lines, and in all regions of the country. 83% of voters supported criminal background checks for all gun sales; 68% favored both gun registration and licensing; 65% favored banning military-style assault weapons; and 65% of voters favored requiring a five-day waiting period before purchasing a firearm. As Penn, Schoen & Berland concluded, "…sensible gun legislation provides a unique opportunity for the [Obama] Administration to build a bridge to moderate voters in both parties."

For these reasons, Election 2008 showed that winning the most significant Second Amendment case in American history actually makes it harder for the NRA bosses to terrify voters once again into believing that elected officials will somehow "take their guns away."  Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox promised to spend $40 million in the election telling voters that Barack Obama was going to be "the most anti-gun President in American history" because he favored common sense gun policies. Most voters rejected the NRA's campaign as ridiculous, however, and instead listened to their own common sense, voting their hopes instead of their fears.

The National Rifle Association leadership took crushing losses on Election Day as a result.  President-elect Obama defeated NRA-endorsed Senator John McCain in states from North Carolina to Nevada, New Hampshire to New Mexico, and dozens in between. President-elect Obama won 365 Electoral Votes, carrying my home state of Indiana – and even the NRA's home state of Virginia – for the first time any Democrat for president carried either state since Lyndon Johnson.  NRA candidates lost not only the White House, but also eight competitive U.S. senate races – including New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and very likely Minnesota – as well as over 20 competitive U.S. House races. No wonder the National Journal magazine rated the National Rifle Association among the "Bottom Five" least effective interest groups in the 2008 elections.

One of the reasons we won and the NRA bosses lost was because they were stuck in the old politics of division, portraying the gun issue as a false choice between the U.S. Constitution and gun violence prevention.  Since the Supreme Court's landmark decision last June, however, it is clear that we can have both in this country.   So today, with less than two weeks before President-elect Obama is inaugurated as America's 44th President, where does the gun violence prevention movement stand?

I believe our movement is in a stronger position to pass life-saving gun laws in 2009 and beyond, than at any time in decades.  With Vice President-elect Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emmanuel, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security-designate Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Education-designate Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor-designate Hilda Solis and other key Administration officials, gun violence prevention advocates are likely to have many friends in the Executive Branch of the Federal government for the first time in a long while.  What's more, with over 10 new members of Congress endorsed by the Brady Campaign having just taken the oath of office, advocates can build on the successes of 2008 by working to create new problem-solving coalitions in 2009.

Make no mistake, however, there is much work to do.  There are only a handful of national gun control laws on the books today, and even those have loopholes. To help keep guns away from dangerous people:

  • We need to require Brady criminal background checks for all gun sales in this country, including at gun shows.
  • We need to restrict access to military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
  • We need to limit bulk sales of handguns to cut illegal gun trafficking.
  • We need to crack down on the 1.2% of corrupt gun dealers who account for almost 60% of crime guns in America.
  • We need to give law enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) the funding and staff they need to disrupt the illegal gun trade.

It really is a new day for the gun violence prevention movement in America.  Yet if we are to build on the successes of 2008 and take advantage of the many new opportunities ahead in 2009, we will need your help.



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