We make it too easy for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons in this country.
As a result of our weak, nearly nonexistent laws restricting access to guns, every year we end up with approximately 12,000 gun homicides, 18,000 gun suicides or fatal accidents, and another 70,000 gun injuries.
In the last month, two different shooters used military-style assault rifles to kill police officers in Oakland and Pittsburgh because the only federal restrictions on guns available to the general public involve fully automatic weapons like machine guns (something we decided to do 75 years ago in response to the Al Capone era of gun violence).
Two years ago, the Virginia Tech murderer passed two Brady background checks despite the fact that a court had found him to be dangerously mentally ill because there was no requirement that those records be entered into the Brady background check database.
Eight years ago, a gun trafficker in Ohio bought 87 handguns of the same make and model at one time from a single gun dealer. Within a few months those guns ended up being used in homicides, attempted homicides, and robberies in the Buffalo, N.Y., area because there are no federal restrictions on the number of guns an individual can buy at one time.
Ten years ago, the killers at Columbine had a friend buy guns for them at a gun show from a so-called private seller because Brady background checks aren't required for those sales.
In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, and with the support of elected officials such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, the people of Colorado and Oregon passed statewide ballot initiatives to close the gun show loophole and require criminal background checks for all gun sales at gun shows. These initiatives passed by wide margins.
At the time, voters learned the words of the 18-year-old friend who straw-purchased weapons on behalf the Columbine killers from unlicensed sellers at a gun show, who said, "I would not have bought a gun for [the killers] if I had had to give any personal information or submit to any kind of check at all."
What Americans did not know then, but would learn years later, are the chilling words that one of the killers wrote in his personal journal: "If we can save up about 200$ real quick and find someone who is 21+ we can go to the next gun show and find a private dealer and buy ourselves some bad-ass AB-10 machine pistols. [C]lips for those things can get really f***ing big too." The killers bought a military-style assault rifle and two shotguns they would use in the massacre in just this way.
The successful initiatives in Colorado and Oregon, however, have been the extent of post-Columbine reforms of America's weak gun laws. If anything, we have gone backward. The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire. Most injured victims can no longer file lawsuits against negligent gun dealers. Tracing information on how guns get into the illegal market are hidden from view. Guns are being pushed into more and more areas.
What we need in America is a common-sense approach to this public safety/public health issue. As recently discussed in a Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism, the cop-killer in Pittsburgh shot two police officers in the head, and then shot a third officer who attempted to come to their rescue. News reports say the shooter was armed with an AK-47, later holding other police officers at bay by firing over a hundred armor-piercing rounds at them. Among other things, reports say that the shooter "feared the Obama administration was poised to ban guns" like his AK-47.
Contributing to this paranoia had to be the National Rifle Association, which spent over 30 times the amount of money trying to defeat Barack Obama in the 2008 election than it spent against Al Gore in 2000. The NRA's extreme rhetoric claimed that Obama would be "the most anti-gun president in American history," and that he was "a serious threat to Second Amendment liberties." All of these claims are false, yet this extreme rhetoric and more is still available on the NRA-sponsored website www.gunbanobama.com.
Mass shootings from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Binghamton demonstrate that our policies of doing nothing to prevent gun violence aren't working. These shootings don't have to happen. We can take steps to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns while still allowing responsible, law-abiding individuals to have firearms for hunting, sport, collecting, or personal protection.
Paul Helmke, a former three-term mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., and past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.