I fled Soviet anti-Semitism: We need to fix lax gun laws as well as hate and bigotry

I fled Soviet anti-Semitism: We need to fix lax gun laws as well as hate and bigotry
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I was born in the Soviet Union and eventually made it to America with my family to escape the persecution of Jews. It was hard to succeed, even to get by, for Soviet Jews. We faced limitations in education, employment, and life in general. My parents became targets of horrific anti-Semitism as they were coming of age, and I myself remember young children, no older than five or six, mocking me for being Jewish as we all lay in the children’s section of a Soviet hospital. (I ended up there after managing to tip an upright piano onto myself.)

My family came to the United States because we believed it was a land of opportunity and equality for all, no matter their faith. That is why it has been so painful over the last few years to see mainstream political leaders give voice to familiar tropes about the “global elite” controlling our media, paying off advocates, and making secret deals to undermine American values.

It’s so heartbreaking to see this hate result in the tragic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue and the wave of hate crimes targeting Jews all across the country.

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We must work to eradicate hate and racism. We should call out all those whose rhetoric fuels the hate, including the President and his allies. And we should invest in treatment for those facing mental illness or crisis. Let’s redouble our efforts. No thinking person believes we don’t need to solve those problems. 

But until we do, our society simply cannot continue to allow virtually unfettered access to guns.  It’s time to admit that our decades-long approach to gun safety – centered around the belief that we can keep guns away from dangerous people – is failing. 

Its failing because we’ve allowed the gun lobby to dictate the terms of the debate – a debate that is designed to perpetuate the status quo. Consider:

  • Focusing on “dangerous people” deflects attention from the guns themselves. Every developed country has “dangerous people” – but the U.S. has a gun homicide rate 25 times higher than other countries because we have so many guns and we make it easy for anyone to have guns and use them. Reports suggest that the Pittsburgh shooter was a legal gun owner, and yet, surely a “dangerous person.”
  • Keeping guns out of the “wrong hands” implies that guns in the “right hands” are a benefit to society. Dozens of studies affirm that where there are more guns, there is more gun death and injury, not less.
  • Failing to go after the guns has led to calls for stricter enforcement and tougher penalties, an approach that has alienated communities of color who see more laws as a pathway to locking up more young black and brown men.
  • Accepting that the constitution enshrines a right to keep and bear arms puts every effort to regulate guns in a defensive posture.
  • Without acknowledging that the guns are the problem, the solutions that are currently being discussed are to be found at the margins: more background checks, taking guns away from people who already have them, banning bump stocks. There’s nothing wrong with these solutions, but they are inadequate to the scope of the problem.

It’s time for a new approach. It’s folly to think we will see an Australia-style gun ban and nationwide buy-back of guns. The U.S. is not Australia, and we don’t need to be.  Here are five things that we should do differently:

Make it significantly harder to get a gun. Most Americans are shocked to learn that in most states there is no license required to own a gun, and guns can be acquired in person-to-person transactions with no paper record or screening. 

New research from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Davis finds simply requiring a background check for these private sales is not enough because of enforcement challenges. States that require all gun owners to obtain a license, which includes a rigorous background check, have reduced their rates of gun violence. Much like a driver’s license, gun owners should have training, pass a competency test, and renew that license periodically. As part of the licensing requirement, we should also:

  • Conduct more vigorous screening of gun buyers. Research points to a history of violence, hate crime, domestic violence, anger control disorders, and alcohol abuse as risk factors for gun violence. Licensing bodies should thoroughly screen for these risk factors.
  • Raise the minimum age for gun possession. Under federal law, there is no minimum age for possession of long guns. The minimum age for possession of a handgun is only 18. A minimum age of 21, with exceptions for military or law enforcement, would save lives.

Stop paying allegiance to the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision interpreting the Second Amendment as conferring an individual right to keep and bear arms is contrary to legal precedent and history, as multiple conservative legal scholars have argued

Embracing a constitutional right to guns is playing on the NRA’s turf. Advocates for campaign finance reform do not embrace the Citizens United decision; nor does the anti-choice community accept Roe v. Wade. We should stop it now. 

That said, we should also be pragmatic and recognize that the Roberts Court is unlikely to correct this legal travesty. So we must be crystal clear that the measures called for here are necessary for public safety and completely consistent with the Heller decision.

Launch a nationwide campaign to educate Americans about the risks associated with guns.  As a result of a 20-year misinformation campaign waged by the gun lobby, most Americans now believe that having a gun in the home makes it safer. Mountains of actual evidence says otherwise – which is exactly why the NRA has fought to prevent federal research on gun violence prevention. Americans need to know this so they can make informed decisions about whether to own guns.

Ban weapons of war for civilian use, including assault-style weapons, high capacity magazines, as well as bump stocks and untraceable guns. Period. No exceptions.

After election day, let’s hope that our leaders – inside and outside government – will consider a new approach to gun safety.  But first,

As someone who was born in a country where dissent was routinely suppressed, I understand the gift and responsibilities associated with living in a representative democracy. So lastly, I encourage you to vote. 

Vote like your life depends on it. Because it does. 

Igor Volsky is the executive director of Guns Down America, an organization dedicated to building a future with fewer guns. Previously, he served as a Vice President at the Center for American Progress. Igor is the author of the forthcoming book, “Guns Down: How To Defeat The NRA And Build A Safer Future With Fewer Guns." Follow him on Twitter @igorvolsky.