Congress can no longer ignore gun violence

It’s difficult to fathom that the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened two months ago this week.

In some ways, that horrifying day seems like it happened only yesterday. But in the short time since 26 people were murdered in Connecticut, we have made progress in launching a national conversation about how to prevent gun violence.

We should have acted sooner.

We should have acted after six people were killed in Tucson, Ariz., two years ago — a shooting in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and I were among 13 people wounded.

We should have acted after seven people were killed in Oakland. Or 12 people in Aurora. Or six people in Oak Creek. Or five people in Minneapolis.

There have been, sadly, many other opportunities to take action to reduce gun violence — opportunities that were missed. But now we are talking — and now, we must act.

I am hopeful President Obama will make that clear in his State of the Union address.

As the survivor of a mass shooting, I am determined that no one else should have to endure such grief and loss. And as a member of Congress and a vice chairman of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, I am unwavering in my commitment to push forward with legislation to make our children and communities safer.

I also am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and we must protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms. 

Many of these mass shootings came at the nexus of two issues: an untreated serious mental illness and use of a high-capacity magazine.

More than 95 percent of individuals living with a mental illness are not violent and are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Nonetheless, we must expand mental health awareness and treatment services and prevent people who are a danger to themselves or others from having access to weapons.

As a first step, I have introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act, which will provide training to help people identify and respond to signs of mental illness.

The president included Mental Health First Aid in his gun-violence prevention recommendations, and it was included in the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force recommendations. It has bipartisan support in the House. I am optimistic that my colleagues will join me in moving this legislation forward.

We also must have background checks for every gun sale while respecting reasonable exceptions for cases such as gifts between family members and temporary loans for sporting purposes.

To the extent they are conducted and we ensure the information on prohibited possessors is in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, background checks work. The Washington Post reported that more than 1.5 million gun sales to prohibited possessors have been blocked by background checks.

But there is a gaping loophole: private-party gun sales, such as those at gun shows. Felons, gun runners and straw purchasers who buy guns for those who cannot legally own them exploit the unregulated private market.

Background checks are widely supported. More than 90 percent of Americans — including those who own guns — support background checks for all gun sales.

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association has stated his support for background checks. In May 1999, LaPierre stated, “We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere, for anyone.”

LaPierre may no longer be advocating for this position, but his own words highlight what a reasonable, and hopefully bipartisan, measure this can be.

We also must stop the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. In the Tucson shooting where I was shot twice, 33 bullets were fired in less than 20 seconds. The first 12 shots took 4.25 seconds — enough time to kill two people and wound four.

The shooting was stopped only when the gunman was tackled as he tried to reload. If the shooter had a magazine that had held 10 bullets instead of 33, a 9-year-old girl might be alive today.

Keeping our kids and communities safe is not a partisan issue.

I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stand with me in taking the actions necessary to prevent tragedies like those in Sandy Hook, Portland, Oak Creek, Aurora and Tucson from reoccurring.

The only way that will happen is if we find ways to work together. America is watching to see if we have the political courage to act.

Barber was wounded in the Tucson shooting in January 2011 that also seriously injured his predecessor, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).