America is in the throes of a gun violence epidemic unprecedented in our nation’s history. Almost 40,000 Americans were killed by firearms in 2017 — the most in nearly four decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No aspect of American life is immune from this pervasive devastation and despair. Not our houses of worship, our schools, our places of leisure and entertainment, nor our streets and our homes.
This American carnage must stop.
The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, expected to pass the House of Representatives this week, represents a long-overdue step toward ending this ongoing, uniquely American tragedy. This law, if passed by Congress and signed by President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE, would require a background check on all gun sales, thereby eliminating existing loopholes in federal law that enable people who are prohibited from possessing firearms from obtaining them from unlicensed sellers.
As co-founders of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, we strongly support the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 because we understand the significance of commonsense federal legislation to ending gun violence and saving lives. The majority of our members, as well as an overwhelming majority of Americans, share our approval of universal background checks. Collectively, we agree this action speaks louder than “thoughts and prayers” platitudes commonly uttered by gun violence apologists after mass shootings.
We have witnessed firsthand in our respective cities the impact of stringent gun safety measures, including universal background checks, on public safety. New York City is now considered the safest major city in America and Los Angeles’ homicide total in 2018 ranked among its lowest in more than 50 years. Yet, despite these successes and many others like them, only 11 states, including New York and California, require universal background checks at the point of sale for all sales and transfers, according to the Giffords Law Center.
In this time of national crisis, our goal must be to make it more difficult for dangerous criminals, domestic abusers and underage kids to obtain deadly weapons. Background checks do this. Case in point: The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also known as NICS, rejected almost 1.3 million applications from 1998 to 2015. Most of these denials resulted from the individual’s criminal history.
Still, gaping loopholes persist that enable would-be gun owners to avoid background checks. For instance, Armslist.com published nearly 1.2 million ads for firearm sales that did not require a background check, according to a recent study by Everytown for Gun Safety. That same study found that one in nine prospective online buyers would not have passed a background check. Guns purchased on Armslist were traced back to four murder and one suicide, according to a New York City Mayor’s Office investigation.
The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 could have stopped these purchases and could have saved those lives. It could have also prevented a 2015 massacre in Houston where a man killed eight people with a firearm he obtained from a stranger online. The killer’s extensive prior criminal history would have barred him from acquiring the weapon had a background check been conducted.
Beyond our bipartisan coalition of prosecutors, leading police agencies are demanding universal background checks to protect their communities. “Our streets, our neighborhoods are truly drowning in the blood of our victims and in the tears of their loved ones,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6. At the same hearing, Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsRep. Brown to run for Maryland attorney general Senate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September Two senior House Democrats to retire MORE (D.-Fla.), the former police chief of Orlando, delivered impassioned remarks mourning shooting victims in her community who died “at the hands of someone with a gun who should’ve never had a gun in the first place.”
Once the House passes the universal background check bill, its ultimate fate will rest with Senate Republicans. As such, we call on all Senate Republicans and President Trump to heed the words of former President Ronald Reagan, himself a gun violence survivor and an iconic supporter of background checks under the Brady Bill.
“If the passage of the Brady Bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers — and it could be a good deal greater — it would be well worth making it the law of the land,” Reagan wrote in a 1991 New York Times op-ed.
Reagan’s words are as true today as when he wrote them. The question remains: How much carnage must America endure — and grieve — before commonsense universal background checks prevail as the law of the land?
Cyrus Vance Jr. is the Manhattan district attorney. Mike Feuer is the Los Angeles City attorney. Vance and Feuer are the co-founders of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence.