The tragic shooting in Parkland has sparked the most recent round of debates over the role of guns in our society. Like so many others, I have been inspired by the perseverance and dedication of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School calling for action from our leaders in Congress. However, I worry that the debate will soon enter a sad, but predictable pattern with glimmers of hope for progress followed by legislative stalemate - much like after Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Charleston, and so many other mass shootings. In an era where Americans seem so divided, it can be difficult to feel optimistic about our ability to effect change. I refuse to give into such despair; there is always hope for a better future in our country.
This 2016 New York Magazine article is the most powerful piece I’ve ever read on the issue of guns in America. The author brought together Americans from across the country who had vastly different life experiences with guns. Shooting survivors and mothers of victims were joined by gun rights’ advocates for a radical experiment in empathy. The meetings were oftentimes messy and did not result in any magical breakthroughs, but they also led to the realization that, “Everyone in the room was separated not by a deep canyon but by a thin line. The dividing factor wasn’t really beliefs about gun control; it was about fear and how you respond to it. There were those who held to their gun ownership as an instrument of power and security in a world that too often seemed unsafe and uncertain, and there were those who knew too well that nothing on earth can guarantee safety and certainty for the people you love.”
Americans of all political beliefs can agree that our children should be safe in their schools and our families should be safe in their houses of worship. We can agree that domestic abusers and terrorists should not be able to acquire dangerous weapons and that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill, who are often at risk of suicide - the most common form of gun death. We can also agree that the 38,658 Americans who died of gun violence in 2016 represent a public health crisis we need to address and that we can do so while respecting Second Amendment rights.
Building an inclusive, accessible economy in every community of the Fifth District will be my number one priority in Congress. Ensuring that mothers in Danville need not worry about losing their children to gun violence and that rural families in Buckingham feel they can defend themselves if necessary is an important part of that mission.
Reducing gun violence in our country is not going to happen overnight. In order to begin, we must elect leaders to Congress who are willing to set special interests and partisan politics aside to have an honest conversation about this critical issue. Below are some of the ideas I would bring to the table for that discussion.
Understanding Gun Violence
The first step to reducing the number of gun deaths in America is understanding why they happen. Today, gun deaths roughly equal the number of motor vehicle deaths in our country. Each year, our country spends tens of millions of dollars on research through the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for automobile safety. We should approach gun violence research with the same vigor and resolve.
Unfortunately, publicly funded gun violence research has almost entirely ceased since the initial passage of the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which prohibited funds at the CDC from being used “to advocate or promote gun control.” Congressman Jay Dickey (R-AR), for whom the amendment was named, eventually came to oppose the policy, writing in a moving op-ed, “What we do know is that firearm injuries will continue to claim far too many lives at home, at school, at work and at the movies until we start asking and answering the hard questions.”
Data-driven, evidence-based approaches can save lives. It is time for Congress to fund non-partisan research on gun violence.
Stopping Terrorists, Criminals, and Domestic Abusers from Acquiring Firearms
Not only must we respect the rights of responsible gun owners, but we must also prevent weapons of war from falling into the hands of those who seek to claim human lives. I strongly believe we can accomplish both goals through several common-sense measures.
First, we should require a background check for all gun sales. The West Virginia-based National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is extensive, but is not used to vet sales from unlicensed dealers, whether they operate at gun shows or online. This loophole allows anyone to avoid a background check - which on average takes less than two minutes - if they buy from an unlicensed dealer.
We can also take steps to eliminate straw purchases of firearms - the legal purchase of a gun on behalf of an individual who is not permitted to buy the weapon or does not want to be identified with the transaction. In cases like these, law enforcement should severely punish both the ‘straw purchaser” and any dealer that knowingly looks the other way while these transactions are made.
Domestic abuse is significantly more dangerous when a firearm is involved. To help keep our families safe, we should close the “Boyfriend Gap” and extend federal prohibitions on those convicted of domestic abuse of a spouse from obtaining firearms to those convicted of domestic abuse of a dating partner as well.
Finally, if a terrorist is too dangerous to fly on an airplane, they are too dangerous to buy a gun. I am committed to ensuring that our government’s “no-fly” list is accurate, respects due process, and that individuals who are listed on it are unable to purchase firearms in order to carry out terrorist attacks.
Federated, not Federal
An honest discussion about gun violence in our country requires the acknowledgment that many Americans are highly skeptical of the federal government when it comes to firearms. We ignore this reality at the risk of continued legislative inaction and an increased number of gun deaths. To the greatest extent possible, therefore, I am committed to encouraging action at the state level to promote responsible and safe gun ownership.
Congress should set aside funds for states that are able to reduce gun fatalities while respecting Second Amendment rights. Such grants would incentivize states to voluntarily invest in, among other initiatives, better firearm training and safe storage. I received extensive instruction with firearms in the Marine Corps before I was allowed to fire a single live round: Of 70 days of training on Parris Island, it wasn’t until Day 42 that they permitted us to discharge our weapons. I am confident that if more civilians were taught these same lessons, we could have fewer gun deaths.
An Assault Weapons Ban that Prevents the Purchase of Weapons of War
Americans should not take a ban on anything lightly. I certainly do not. For me, an assault weapons ban ultimately comes down to what I believe to be true: we cannot continue to permit the sale of a weapon that has been used time and time again to massacre children in their schools and worshipers in their sanctuaries.
A ban on the purchase of assault weapons is not a panacea. It will not consist of any mandatory or coerced buy-back of firearms that have already been legally purchased, and it will need to be responsibly tailored to factor in the concerns of sportsmen. Nevertheless, I am confident that reasonable people - gun owners and non-gun owners alike - can come together on a ban that will help prevent future mass shootings.
I wrote more about how I arrived at this position here.
Empowering Individuals to Act on Early Warning Signs
That the FBI had been warned about the shooter in Parkland but failed to stop him before he carried out his deadly rampage only added to the frustration so many of us felt in the wake of the tragedy. Similarly, the Air Force failed to properly record the domestic violence conviction of the airman who eventually slaughtered 26 worshipers in a Texas church last fall.
Time and time again, we have witnessed bureaucratic systems designed to prevent mass shootings fail in their mission. We can change that through bottom-up solutions that empower individuals close to those who are a potential danger to themselves or others through expanding gun violence restraining orders (GVROs). GVROs allow family members and co-inhabitants to petition a local judge with evidence that an individual is an immediate danger to themselves or others. The subject of the petition is given a chance to respond, but if the evidence is found to prove a clear and compelling danger by the judge, the restrained person is ordered to surrender any firearms in their control. GVROs need to be tied closely to connecting troubled individuals with the services they need to get help because removing firearms from the situation will not alone solve the underlying issues. A GVRO expires after a set number of days unless additional evidence shows it should remain in place for an extended period.
GVROs have several benefits. First, they allow a fairly immediate form of intervention for those closest to potential threats - a concerned parent or spouse such as the mother of the Parkland shooter. Second, they are scalable - easily implemented at a reasonably low cost to taxpayers. Third, they avoid the collective punishment that many responsible gun owners see in proposed reforms to limit the availability of firearms. Finally, they begin to shift the onus for preventing tragedies from distant bureaucracies to more responsive localities.