We must act to address gun violence

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In November 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Vivek Murthy to be Surgeon General of the United States. His nomination to the position was stalled, in part, due to his belief that gun violence is a public health epidemic. While he was eventually confirmed, the basis for the delay in approving his nomination merits highlighting.

Over the Labor Day weekend, the nation was transfixed by the images of a storm barreling down in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the southeastern seaboard of the United States. Yet, half a continent away from Dorian, in the cities of Odessa and Midland, in Texas, a gunman terrorized two highways and others parts of the city by indiscriminately opening fire, killing seven and injuring 21—including three members of law enforcement. He used an assault weapon. In early August, in a span of 14 hours, mass shootings rocked different corners of our country. During the day in El Paso, while many shoppers took part in back-to-school sales, a gunman opened fire in a Wal-Mart and an adjoining shopping center, killing 20 people, and injuring 26. He is a 21-year old, and was armed with an A-K 47 style assault rifle. Hours before his carnage, the El Paso shooter posted a manifesto to a far-right extremist website, detailing anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic screeds.  And, after he was arrested and in statements made to the El Paso Police, the gunman indicated that he sought to “kill as many Mexicans as possible.” Mere hours later, a gunman opened fire in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine, before he was killed. He was wearing body armor as he wielded his horror. Dr. Murthy was correct: this spate of gun violence is a public health epidemic. 

These incidents are deadlier, happening at higher and higher rates, and, according to Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan of the Department of Homeland Security, mass shootings—especially those fueled by white nationalism, extremism and hate—are becoming a homeland security threat. FBI Director Chris Wray has also echoed this sentiment when, in recent Senate testimony, he indicated that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases are motivated by white supremacist violence. After Odessa/Midland and in 2019 alone, we have had 253 mass shootings. In August 2019 alone, 53 people died in mass shooting incidents. Our mass shootings are so pervasive that they are beginning to doubly victimize those scarred by the horror. To wit: a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting was shot and killed the next year at the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks; and, the father of a victim murdered at Parkland High School, was in El Paso when a gunman opened fire and killed 22 in early August.

Abraham Lincoln once said “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” Yet, the intransigence and obstructive behavior of Republicans in Congress have put Lincoln’s sentiment to shame. This is because, despite widespread support for commonsense gun violence prevention legislation, certain components of our federal government—namely the Senate, under the control of its leader Mitch McConnell—have steadfastly opposed any gun violence prevention legislation. In a public opinion poll released last week by Quinnipiac University, 93 percent of respondents support universal background checks; 82 percent support for requiring a license to purchase a gun; 80 percent support for a red flag law; and 60 percent support ban on assault weapons. I understand public sentiment on this issue, which is why I have been legislating to address this scourge.

On May 18, 2018, a student at Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, Texas, walked into class with firearms and killed 10 people. It ranks among the deadliest school shootings in Texas history. It was determined that the gunman used his father’s lawfully-purchased guns to effectuate his terror. As a result, just before the beginning of the District Work Period, I introduced a trio of bills designed to minimize the carnage resulting from gun violence. The first is H.R. 4080, the Kimberly Vaughan Firearm Safe Storage Act. This bill regulates the proper storage of firearms and ammunition for residences with a minor or a person that is ineligible to own a firearm. The second bill introduced in this trio of gun safety bills is H.R. 4081, the Sabika Sheikh Firearm Licensing and Registration Act. This bill creates a process for the license and registration of firearms and the possession of certain ammunition. Finally, the third bill introduced in this trio of gun safety bill is H.R. 4082, the Santa Fe High School Victims Act. This bill prohibits the purchase or sale of a firearm or ammunition unless it is through a federally licensed dealer that meets additional requirements. These three bills are named after two victims and the school at which this tragedy occurred.

Even on legislation which enjoys overwhelmingly broad support and is ripe for Senate consideration—H.R. 8 passed the House of Representatives in bipartisan fashion and calls for universal background checks, consistent with over 90 percent of the country–there is Senate inaction. The statistics mentioned herein beg the simple question: why has meaningful gun violence prevention legislation failed to achieve success in the Houses of Congress? The answer is simple: it is because of the stranglehold that special interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, have on our political system. This statement is not a casual aside; it has been remarked upon by other learned scholars who are committed to meaningful American jurisprudence. In an article published in The Atlantic just months before he died at age 99, after a 35 year career as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens remarked as follows: the retired Chief Justice Warren Burger described the National Rifle Association’s lobbying in support of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment in these terms: “One of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Gun violence is a uniquely American scourge. And, no state, city or town is immune from the carnage. This problem is not segregated to red states or blue states, or to cities or rural areas. This is why we cannot afford delay. We must summon the courage to surmount opposition from special interest groups, like the NRA. Our people are dying at an intolerable rate. We, the people, possess the power to control the carnage. We must act. Today, in Houston, I am hosting a gun violence prevention summit to convene stakeholders so that we can collaborate to develop solutions to this problem. All who will attend share my sentiment—we must act.  If we do not act, we will continue to see these incidents continue unabated, and we will only have ourselves to blame.  If our popular will is insufficient to produce this change, we must demand more of our political system. We must also recognize that H.R. 8 must be the floor, not the ceiling. We must act to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, control ammunition, and implement licensing and registration schemes to control the guns on the market and who can wield them. If not, we are destined to see these incidences occur in horrific—and predictable—fashion.

Jackson Lee represents the 18th District of Texas and is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and Homeland Security Committee.

Tags Barack Obama Gun control Mass shooting Mitch McConnell Vivek Murthy
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