It's finally time to pass universal background checks

Over the last decade, we have seen countless tragic instances of gun violence across our country. In 2017, there were nearly 40,000 gun deaths in the United States — nearly 109 every single day. We have seen Americans shot in their homes, classrooms, places of worship, and others locations within their communities — spaces that should have been safe.

We’ve seen lives torn apart by firearm suicide. We’ve seen children and young adults killed before they had a chance to fully become themselves. We’ve seen people of color murdered with alarming frequency. We’ve seen families grieve.

For far too long, our laws have made it too easy for dangerous people to obtain deadly weapons — and for almost a decade, our legislators have refused to even consider policies that could save lives. That pattern of inaction ended on Wednesday. 

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On Wednesday, our elected officials took a meaningful step towards preventing gun violence. They held a hearing on H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019; H.R. 8 would establish universal background checks on all gun sales in America, including private sales at gun shows and online.

Current federal law requires a background check when a firearm is purchased from a licensed firearms dealer, but does not require a background check when a firearm is purchased from a private, unlicensed seller. This gap allows prohibited purchasers to avoid proper screening.

It is critically important that our legislators take this opportunity and pass H.R. 8. Background checks are the foundation upon which all firearm policies must build, as they work to keep guns away from high-risk individuals.

Without background checks on all gun sales, new and existing firearm prohibitions cannot be maximally effective. Without background checks, other laws – like extreme risk laws, an assault weapons ban, and laws to disarm domestic abusers — cannot be fully enforced. Background checks are just the first of many steps we must take to address our gun violence epidemic.

Not only are background checks important — they are popular. The vast majority of Americans support universal background checks. In fact, Americans increasingly support gun violence prevention policies in general and the leaders who champion them.

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In the 2018 midterm elections, voters across the country rejected the gun lobby and elected candidates who support stronger gun laws. Voters are demanding commonsense gun violence prevention measures, and H.R. 8 is an indication that legislators are finally taking notice. 

The significance of Wednesday’s hearing — which was held just over a week before the first anniversary of the tragic massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — cannot be overstated. Seeing gun violence survivors and advocates speak with their legislators about the importance of universal background checks was powerful. Aalayah Eastmond, a survivor of the Parkland massacre, gave especially moving testimony. Hearing a high school senior describe the horror of her experience with gun violence, followed by a list of commonsense gun violence prevention policies, created a sense of hope for those in the room and those watching on television. Yes, gun violence is a horrific problem; it is a public health crisis.

But we know there are evidence-based solutions and if legislators will listen to survivors and advocates like Aalayah, we can save lives.   

For years, gun violence survivors, families, and activists have waited through moments of silence. We’ve listened to empty thoughts and prayers. Finally after unrelenting carnage, legislators seem to understand stronger gun laws are an important step forward. They understand that background checks are the foundation of other gun violence prevention policies. They understand that their constituents are demanding change.

It’s time to finally make it happen. It’s time to pass H.R. 8.

Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.