Elected offiicials must stand up to NRA on gun safety

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Well excuse me. Talk I will. The reality is few issues have been more politicized than guns. The National Rifle Association has managed to take the non-political issue of public safety and turn it into one of the most political issues in Congress and state legislatures throughout the country.

The National Rifle Association now holds hostage the majority of the US Congress. They don’t do it at gunpoint, but their weapon of choice is just as effective.  It’s called “scoring.”

Many advocacy organizations across the political and issue spectrum “score” or rate members of Congress based on their votes. A 100% score by the NRA means a member’s voting record deserves the support of NRA members. The punishment for a low score can be very harsh. Elected officials fear voting against the NRA will bring retribution come election time. 

These days and for most of my 14 years in Congress when the NRA scores a bill, its position prevails. Despite the valiant efforts of members like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) who ran for Congress in 1996 after her husband was shot and killed and son wounded on the Long Island Railroad, gun safety advocates in Congress find little support. 

In 2004, the assault weapons ban quietly expired, and with it restrictions on purchases of the AR-15, one of the weapons used by the shooter. The sale of those weapons exploded, inspiring Mexican President Felipe Calderon, no flaming liberal, to bluntly say in April, “The expiring of the assault weapons ban…coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the harshest – the harshest – period of violence we’ve ever seen.” 

NRA scoring threats are rampant.  In 2010, a bill passed the House by a vote of 307 to 113 (but never became law), allowing any person who declares bankruptcy to protect $3,000 worth of weapons from creditors. Protection for guns, but not those struggling with student or medical debt.

The NRA argument talks less about deadly weapons and more about “liberty.”  Frankly, I’ve had enough of that. In the name of public safety, you are prohibited from taking a full tube of tooth paste on an airplane. You must put on your seat belt when you drive your car, and can’t buy Sudafed off the shelf.  You can’t falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater, and your children must be vaccinated before they go to school. You can complain all you want as you take off your shoes before being x-rayed at the airport, but if you want to board, you better do it.

NRA leaders like to say “Guns don’t kill. People do.” There has been plenty of discussion since the shooting about our failure to deal adequately with mental illness. I welcome that conversation. Yes, of course, there is more than one factor contributing to these murders and others like them, but to say that guns are irrelevant is simply irresponsible. 

The NRA purports to speak for the American people, but the vast majority of Americans support sensible gun safety laws. Few believe that anyone needs to own a machine gun capable of firing 100 bullets in a matter of seconds. When asked, 82% of Americans support limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, including over 2/3 of voters in Colorado. A recent poll by Frank Luntz suggests the NRA doesn’t even speak for a majority of its own members. 74% of NRA members support criminal background checks. 91% support basic eligibility requirements for people to carry concealed guns in public places. 

There’s only one real answer. It’s time for elected leaders and concerned citizens who support gun safety to make it even more painful to oppose responsible limitations on guns than it is to be cowed by the NRA leadership. It is a matter of life and death.

Schakowsky, a Democrat, represents the 9th Congressional District of Illinois.