INNOCENTS

LOST

The No. 1 cause of death of children in the United States is gun violence. That is a tragedy in and of itself. But the loss is even greater than that. American kids no longer feel safe to go to school, to church, to the movies. Parents live in fear that the next shooting will take their child’s life. And while politicians debate about gun safety reforms, we are left with this sick, sinking feeling that this reality is the new normal in our country. But it doesn’t have to be.

BY PARIS GILES • FIRST PRINTED IN THE JULY/AUGUST 2022 ISSUE

It happened again. And then again … and again. After two other mass shootings that garnered headlines just days before, on May 24, an 18-year-old shooter killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in the small town of Uvalde, Texas. 

Mass shootings of this sort at schools and other public places are nothing novel. Gun violence to the degree that it happens here is a uniquely American epidemic. 

In just the past school year alone, 37 innocents lost their lives in 51 shootings at school. That number is closing in on 200 lives lost since Columbine. Outside of conflict zones, no other country has as many guns or as many mass shootings. So, then by that measure, are we living in a war zone? The frustration is palpable, especially among parents who wonder whether they can let their teenager hang out at the mall, if they should buy their 10-year-old a cellphone so that they can reach them whenever or if they should put a bullet-proof backpack on the back-to-school shopping list.

For some, learning that gun violence has overtaken accidents as the leading cause of death for kids ages 1-19 is too shocking to believe. But that’s what the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and analyzed by the New England Journal of Medicine shows, confirmed by leading independent researchers.

The debate against gun reform often hinges on respect for the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which gives our nation’s citizens the right to “bear arms.” Some of those opposed to gun safety measures cite their fear that we’ll enact an all-out ban on firearms. The majority of gun reform proponents and everyday Americans want is not a government-forced roundup of all the country’s estimated 390 million guns (yes, the U.S. is believed to now have more guns than people), but tighter laws around access. 

In the wake of shootings, lawmakers opposed to talking about gun reform propose unworkable ideas that skirt around the issue of the guns themselves, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and others offering up the idea of a one-door policy, allowing just one door in the school to be used, a logistical problem and dangerous idea should a fire occur. They also renewed calls to arm and train teachers to defend their classrooms. As if teachers don’t have enough to balance already?

So, what can we do that respects our Second Amendment and collectively could make a difference in reducing the number of mass shootings? Plenty. While the pain of the Uvalde school shooting is still raw and before the lull of summer sets in, we’re sharing facts to help you cut through the noise in the ongoing debate about gun safety reform. 

Red Flag Laws 

Talks of mental health can feel, to some, like a frustratingly smooth sidestep of the gun problem, but supporters of red flag laws say both conversations can be had simultaneously. So, what exactly are red flag gun laws? 

Also called “extreme-risk protection orders,” similar to how restraining orders work, family members or police officers are able to file an application temporarily barring anyone believed to be a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing a firearm. This is one of just a few points in the gun debate that has a fair amount of bipartisan support, with many Republican lawmakers on board. However, gun rights activists say these laws violate the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments which read that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” As of this writing, red flag laws are already in place in 19 states — including New York, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and California — and Washington, D.C. 

Background Checks

Many consider background checks to be the first line of defense to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands. Federal law requires that a background check be done on any individual attempting to buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer to check for criminal history, mental health records, drug abuse and instances of domestic violence. But, because of underreporting by states, violations are often missed. Besides that, gun safety activists point to the gun show and private seller loopholes. Currently, in a number of states, if you buy a gun from a private seller or an unlicensed dealer (say, at a gun show), they aren’t required to perform a background check. 

Cut to the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (HR 8). This bill establishes federal background check requirements for firearm transfers between private parties and unlicensed dealers. If made law, it would require that a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check. HR 8 passed in the House in March 2021 but remains stalled in the Senate, and legal experts aren’t hopeful that it’ll pass. 

Background checks would not work in cases like the November high school shooting in Oxford, Mich., since the gun, a 9mm Sig Sauer SP 2022 pistol, was purchased just four days before the shooting by the teen’s dad as a gift.

Semiautomatic Assault Weapons

The shooter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, carried with him two semiautomatic rifles that he’d legally purchased the day after his 18th birthday — just days before the massacre. In 2017, the Las Vegas shooter used semiautomatic rifles legally modified to shoot like automatic weapons, while the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter used an AR-15 and two semiautomatic pistols: the list goes on. 

Advocates for stricter gun laws, propose raising the federal age requirement to purchase long guns like semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. Currently, under the Gun Control Act, shotguns and rifles may be sold to individuals 18 years old and older, though several states have raised the age requirement. 

The Protecting Our Children Act (HR 7910), if passed, would set the nationwide age requirement for semiautomatic weapons to 21. In a further step, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2021 (HR 1808) would do just what the name suggests: prohibit the import, sell, manufacture, transfer and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. It’s worth noting that assault weapons were banned in 1994 but that measure was allowed to lapse in 2004. 

The Fight

It’s hard not to feel helpless when it comes to what to do about mass shootings and gun violence, but it’s past time that parents make their voices heard. Consider donating to or getting involved in these organizations. 

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence takes a three-pronged approach to combating gun violence: changing laws, changing the gun industry and changing culture. bradyunited.org

Everytown for Gun Safety is the largest gun violence prevention organization in America and employs an evidence-based, neighborhood-by-neighborhood model. 

It classifies Illinois – where 1,505 people on average die by guns each year – as having some of the strongest gun laws in the country, including background checks on all gun sales, an Extreme Risk law, and laws keeping guns away from domestic abusers. Guns are the leading cause of death for kids and teens, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. everytown.org

Moms Demand Action is a grassroots effort to stem gun violence. It has a chapter in every state. To learn more, in Chicagoland, the Chicago Northwest Side group meets July 9, a South Suburbs group meets July 27 and the Humboldt Park/Logan Square group meets July 28. momsdemandaction.org

Giffords is led by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with a mission to shift culture, mobilize voters and challenge injustice. giffords.org

Sandy Hook Promise is run by several of the family members of the students killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and their goal is to teach young people to spot the signs and prevent gun violence. sandyhookpromise.org

Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions uses rigorous research methods to develop equitable programs and policies that thwart gun violence. jhu.edu

Violence Policy Center uses research, investigation, analysis and advocacy to fight against gun violence in America. vpc.org

The Culture 

Guns are Americana. Few other places in the world have as rich a gun culture. According to research by the Small Arms Survey — a Swiss-based leading research project — in 2018, there were an estimated 390 million guns in the United States (that’s more than 120 guns per 100 people). According to a Pew Research Center survey done in June 2021, four in 10 U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, with 30% saying they personally own one. 

The majority of Americans support “common sense” gun legislation. Still, attitudes around gun laws and the issue of gun safety tend to differ based on a few factors including gender, race, location and political party. The Pew Report also found:

Those who Personally Own A Gun

44%

of Republicans and Republican leaning independents

20%

of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents

39%

of men

22%

of women

41%

of adults living in rural areas

29%

of adults living in the suburbs 

20%

of adults living in cities

Those who see Gun Violence as a very big or Major problem

82%

of Black adults

58%

of hispanic adults

39%

of white adults

18%

of Republicans and Republican leaning independents

 73%

of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents

Say Gun Laws should be Stricter (as of April 2021)

20%

of Republicans and Republican leaning independents

81%

of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents

The NRA 

When discussing why it’s often so difficult to make changes around gun policy, reform advocates point to politicians that are beholden to the gun lobby — the biggest of these is the National Rifle Association, which boasts between 3 and 5 million members. Founded in 1871, the NRA categorizes itself as a civil rights organization committed to protecting citizens’ Second Amendment rights.

The NRA argues that the key to a safer country is more guns, and in 1975 it formed its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, to fight against gun reform. Some argue that the NRA is working on behalf of gun manufacturers and dealers to ensure that gun sales remain plentiful and profitable.

According to the BBC, in 2020, the NRA spent $250 million — more than all of America’s gun reform groups combined. And (officially) they spend $3 million a year to influence gun policy, though it’s probably more by way of PACs and independent contributions.

In 2019, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence compiled a list of the 50 senators who’ve taken the most money from the NRA, and it includes 19 current or recent senators who’ve taken at least $1 million over their careers. Topping the list is Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) with more than $13 million in donations. Also included is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) with more than $1.2 million in campaign contributions, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) with more than $3.3 million taken. 

Gun rights organizations spent a record high 15.8 million on lobbying in 2021, topping the previous 2013 record set when spending more than doubled  following the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Going forward 

As families mourn the loss of those killed at school and the injured recover from their physical wounds, our nation also mourns the loss of children’s innocence, with hundreds of thousands directly impacted by gun violence in their schools since Columbine in 1999. This generation of school children will never know school without active shooter drills or the fear that their school could be next. 

As a group, parents can be a mighty force in calling for change from lawmakers who were debating a gun reform proposal at presstime. The time for everyone to add their voices is now before school reopens and any more innocents are lost.

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