Tuesday, January 8 marks the second anniversary of the brutal shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others by Jared Lee Loughner. Six innocent victims were mercilessly slain that day, including Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman and Judge John Roll, who died as a consequence of their heroic action to save other’s lives.
Just three weeks ago on December 14 our entire nation went into shock as we witnessed the ghastly slaying of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut by 20-year old Adam Lanza. The morning of the shooting he shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, who kept an arsenal of guns in her home, before heading off to Shady Hook Elementary School to massacre 20 six and seven year old students and six staff members. The slain staff were Dawn Hochsprung, principal; Mary Scherlach, school psychologist; Rachel D’Avivo, a behavioral therapist; and three teachers – Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau and Victoria Soto. In a valiant final act of courage, Victoria Sota, a first-grade teacher, gathered her students together and hid them in a closet as the shooter approached her classroom. Anne Marie Murphy, a special ed teacher, died shielding the bodies of the students she loved.
Once again our nation stood in shock and disbelief in the wake of yet another senseless massacre.
The tide is shifting
For decades the NRA, arguably the nation’s most powerful lobbying group, has held both houses of Congress hostage in charging forward with its extreme pro-gun agenda. Among other things they have successfully blocked reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Indeed, many lawmakers from both parties toe the line with the NRA as they view that organization’s support as constituting the difference between winning and losing. In recent years this has particularly applied to Democrats seeking election in relatively conservative districts.
Since the Newtown, Connecticut massacre many political observers perceive that the balance of power appears to be shifting. Democrats are vocally pushing for change and many Republicans are now hesitant to speak out against gun control. Locally here in Tucson Steve Kozachik, a Republican member of the City Council, has pulled together with the cooperation of the Safeway Corporation a gun buy-back by the Tucson Police Department, to be held on January 8.
Days after the Newtown tragedy, President Obama announced that he had appointed Vice President Biden to lead a team charged with fast-tracking specific legislation designed to stem our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Biden has been directed to deliver his recommendations in January and the President has pledged to move to swiftly enact them.
Specifically, Obama has cited the need to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and to close existing loopholes that permit persons to purchase guns at gun shows without background checks.
Currently 40 percent of guns are sold by so-called private sellers and the buyers are consequently exempt from background checks under federal law. And speaking of gun shows, were you aware that last January while the rest of Tucson was mourning the first anniversary of the brutal shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, a proprietary organization named Crossroads held a very well attended gun show at the Pima County fairgrounds!
On December 17 New York City Major Michael Bloomberg held a press conference, flanked by dozens of shooting survivors and relatives of victims of gunfire around the country. Tucsonans actively participating in this conference included Pam Simon, former staff member for Congresswoman Giffords who was seriously wounded in the January 8, 2011 shooting; Roxanna Green, mother of Christina Taylor-Green, the youngest victim in the Giffords shooting; Mary Reed, also wounded on January 8; Patricia Maisch, who kept the shooter from reloading; and Nancy Bowman, a nurse on the scene who gave lifesaving aid to those who had been shot.
Bloomberg convened this conference as co-founder of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns”, a group that is now 700 members strong. The conference featured a roll-out of the “Demand A Plan” videos, produced by the mayors’ group, which features testimony by 34 people around the country who have been intimately affected by gun violence. The take-home from the conference was an unequivocal call by Bloomberg and his entourage to our President and both houses of Congress for immediate decisive action to produce tougher gun laws combined with tighter enforcement.
The December 23 edition of the Daily Star carried an insightful opinion piece by Roberto A. Villasenor, Tucson Chief of Police, titled “We are all responsible for our violent society”. He stresses that we all need to take responsibility for the violent society we have developed: we must address the issues of violence in the media and entertainment industry, evaluate how the mentally ill seem to have such unrestricted access to weapons in our society, and enact and strictly enforce truly responsible gun control measures.
Another telling sign of growing support for responsible gun control is provided by results of a recent Washington Post-ABC New poll conducted shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. Survey findings indicate that for the first time since 2007 significantly more people strongly favor stricter gun control laws (44 percent) than strongly oppose such laws (32 percent). Yes, a number of signs indicate that the recent Connecticut tragedy appears to have precipitated a major shift in which growing numbers of Americans are demanding that our nation’s leaders enact and enforce truly responsible and effective gun control measures.
Licensing gun owners
For the past five years the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has issued a 100-point scorecard ranking all 50 states on the basis of laws that can reduce gun violence, such as background checks on all gun sales, permit-to-purchase requirements and mandatory reporting of all thefts of firearms.
The six top ranking states, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Hawaii registered scores ranging from 81 to 50, respectively. The three lowest ranking states, Arizona, Alaska and Utah each registered “0” (zero) scores. The 2011 Brady Report also cites that the 31 states with the weakest gun laws export guns used in crime at a rate 9 times higher than the states with the strongest laws.
All of this points to the case for mandatory licensure of gun owners. While mass carnage such as the recent Sandy Hook massacre makes for screaming headlines that compel us to pause for sober reflection, are you aware that every day in America 34 people are murdered with guns? That is equivalent to one major massacre every day!
Another sobering set of statistics: Currently 36,000 American die each year as a result of motor vehicle accidents. Running closely behind are deaths due to firearms, which total 31,000 annually. The majority of these gun-related deaths (55.6 percent) are suicides, with homicides making up 40.5 percent of the remaining deaths.
While every state has stringent regulations pertaining to licensure of motor vehicle drivers, very few states require licensure of gun owners.
In New York State a license to carry or possess a pistol or revolver is required to purchase a handgun. In Westchester County, just north of New York City, an applicant is required to complete a firearms safety course and pass a test as a condition for licensure. And throughout the entire state an investigation is conducted regarding all statements required in the application. This includes fingerprinting the applicant and forwarding the prints to the FBI for a criminal background check. I am, however, unaware of any stipulations in the current New York State licensure requirements calling for a background check pertaining to the applicant’s mental status.
I strongly advocate mandatory licensure of gun owners, that would require each prospective owner to attend an approved gun safety class, including hands-on firearms training, and education as to the deadly nature of firearms, particularly in the hands of persons prone to depression and/or domestic violence. Furthermore, requirements for licensure should include a written examination regarding gun safety, together with clearance concerning one’s fitness to bear arms. The latter should be based on a criminal background check combined with a review of information provided by a comprehensive data base that would enable at least a rudimentary assessment of the applicant’s fitness for gun ownership, based on available indications concerning his or her mental stability.
What would motivate states to enact the licensure requirements I am proposing? I would urge that a leading edge organization that advocates responsible gun control – such as the Brady Campaign or Mayors Against Illegal Guns – draft model licensure legislation and exert its influence to rally our citizenry and lawmakers in the various states to enact this legislation. Concurrently, the federal government should assume a leadership role in developing and implementing a comprehensive database to provide a basis for responsible assessment of an applicant’s fitness for gun ownership. This assessment should include a review of the applicant’s criminal record and available indications concerning his or her mental stability.
While not presenting a perfect solution, I believe that implementation of the above recommendations would go a long way toward striking a reasonable balance between maintaining citizens’ second amendment rights and promoting responsible ownership and use of firearms.