As the National Rifle Association gathers in St. Louis for its annual convention, I have a message for its members that its leadership doesn’t want them to hear:
I agree with you. And it’s time for the NRA’s Washington-based leadership to start listening to you.
To hear most pundits and political strategists tell it, Americans are hopelessly divided by guns. But we’re not. Polls show that NRA members, and gun owners generally, overwhelmingly support common sense steps to ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of criminals.
Ask gun owners if they believe that background checks should be extended to all gun sales, including those that take place at gun shows: more than 80 percent agree.
Ask gun owners if they believe that terrorists on the FBI watch list should be prohibited from purchasing guns: more than 80 percent agree.
Ask gun owners if they believe they should be required to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen: more than 80 percent agree.
The problem we face in this country is not that there is an unbridgeable gap between gun owners and non-gun owners. In fact, there is broad bipartisan agreement among the American people about what should be done to crack down on illegal guns and improve public safety.
The problem is that those who claim to speak for gun owners in Washington—including the leadership of the NRA—are out of sync with their members. They are interested in pushing a political ideology, not protecting public safety—and nowhere is that more evident than in the NRA’s advocacy for “Stand Your Ground” laws.
The killing of Trayvon Martin has shone a spotlight on these laws, which are more accurately called “Shoot First” laws, because they allow people to shoot first and ask questions later. But no matter what happens in the trial of George Zimmerman, this much we already know: these laws are making our country less safe.
Five years ago, the NRA pushed a Shoot First law through the Florida legislature by claiming it would protect people who acted in self-defense. In fact, it has given a license to kill to anyone with a gun looking to settle an argument, including gang members. That’s one reason why leading law enforcement authorities opposed passage of the law—and sure enough, their fears have been realized.
Before the law was passed, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicides” a year. Since the law was passed, they are averaging 36 a year. Similar trends have happened in other states that have passed such laws. Georgia went from averaging seven justifiable murders a year to 14. Texas went from 26 to 45. There have now been 25 states that have passed “Shoot First” laws, and their justifiable homicides rates have nearly doubled.
These laws are vigilantism masquerading as self-defense, and getting half of the nation’s states to pass them is one of the best con jobs the NRA’s leaders have ever pulled off. They want to create a nation where disputes are settled by guns instead of gavels, and where suspects are shot by civilians instead of arrested by police. We have too many murders as it is without passing laws that lead to even more.
Every day in America, 34 innocent people are murdered with a gun; that’s like having a Virginia Tech massacre every day, only worse. It adds up to 12,000 people a year. Imagine losing the entire Freshman and Sophomores classes at Virginia Tech. It’s unthinkable. But it’s happening, year after year. And Washington just shrugs.
The great tragedy is that all those murders don’t have to happen. We can stop them. Not by banning guns; the Second Amendment must be respected. All it requires is for Congress to do what the NRA says it wants: enforce the laws on the books.
Federal law prohibits criminals and the mentally ill from owning guns. But as any police officer knows, both groups have easy access to them. Any violent felon can go to a gun show and purchase as many guns as he can afford. Those sales are illegal, but they happen all the time. A Department of Justice study found that 30 percent of all illegally trafficked guns are connected to gun shows. And an undercover investigation by the City of New York revealed that 63 percent of unlicensed sellers at gun shows sold guns to people who said they probably couldn’t pass a background check. Those sales are federal felonies—and they are business as usual.
New York City has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, and that’s one reason why we are the safest big city in the nation. But guns easily flow into our streets from out of state. In fact, about 85 percent of all guns recovered in crimes in our city were bought in another state.
The illegal access that criminals have to guns is a national problem that requires national leadership. But so long as Washington is under the myth that the nation is hopelessly divided on guns, nothing will change. The challenge before us is to help both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue understand that the American people—including gun owners—support common sense reforms that would allow us to enforce the laws already on the books.
In recent years, mayors from around the country, and from both political parties, have been joining together to take on this challenge. Today, our coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns counts more than 600 members, representing big cities and small towns, in urban, suburban and rural areas.
Mayors join the coalition because we don’t have the luxury of viewing the gun issue as an endless ideological debate. We are pragmatists and problem-solvers, and our first responsibility is protecting public safety. When criminals illegally possess and use guns, people rightly hold us accountable for stopping it. We support the Second Amendment, but we don’t hide behind it.
Mayors also have a special responsibility to support our police departments. And that includes doing everything possible to disarm those who pose a risk to the public—and to officers on the beat. When a police officer is shot, mayors—not members of Congress or state legislatures—get the call to go to the hospital. And God forbid the officer doesn’t make it, we have to break the news that breaks a family’s heart. It’s a part of the job I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But if members of Congress had to do it, I have no doubt they’d start taking this issue a lot more seriously.
There is broad agreement in America on how to make our streets safer. Gun owners, mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, all understand what should be done. Now we just need to get those in Washington to listen.