Gun violence: a public health epidemic

People of faith must continue to advocate for the passage of national gun-safety laws, writes the PC(USA)’s advocacy director for the Office of Public Witness & Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations Jimmie Hawkins.

Photo by Chip Vincent on Unsplash

Gun violence is a nationwide health epidemic that is inflicting pain and permanent, irreparable damage in the lives of innocent children, women and men. We must face the reality that the accessibility of a wide array of weapons is the primary cause of gun violence and the resulting tragic loss of life, as well as physical and emotional injuries of violence survivors.

In January 2023, Everytown for Gun Safety, a national organization that advocates for policies to lessen gun violence, produced a report titled “Gun Safety Policies Saves Lives,” which urges the passage of strong gun safety protections as well as community action to curb gun violence. The report, which measured and scored states according to gun safety regulations compared to the rate of gun violence, found that states with strong policies regulating the ownership and public carry of weapons suffer fewer incidents of gun violence than states with weaker – or few – policies. Fourteen states – those with weaker policies and higher rates of gun violence – are labeled as “national failures”; they endure a mortality rate that is up to three times higher than those states with stronger regulations. California, which the report shows has the strongest policies, ranks eighth (per 100,000 residents) among the states with the fewest gun-related deaths. Massachusetts, with laws among the strongest, has the smallest rate of gun-violence deaths per 100,000 residents. Mississippi, with the fewest regulations and highest number of deaths, is the most dangerous, according to the report.

But stronger gun regulations in any state can be less effective at times due to the so-called “iron pipeline,” in which weapons from states with fewer firearm regulations make their way across state lines. “Out of all guns showing up at crime scenes after crossing state lines,” the Everytown for Gun Safety report states, “four out of five come from states that lack good background check laws.”

We must face the reality that the accessibility of a wide array of weapons is the primary cause of gun violence …

President Joe Biden has repeatedly called on lawmakers to ban assault weapons. On Saturday, June 25, 2022, after 19 children and two teachers were gunned down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 Black people massacred in an act of terror at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) into law. It was the first major federal gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years; the Assault Weapons Ban, enacted in 1994, sunsetted in 2004.

The BSCA’s provisions include a $750 million incentive program for states to implement crisis intervention services, including drug courts, mental health courts and “red flag” laws that allow the petitioning of courts “to order the temporary removal of firearms from individuals who are judicially determined to present a risk of harm to themselves or others,” according to the Duke Center for Firearms Law. The Duke Center’s website states that the BSCA also expanded background checks for those ages 18-21 and closed the “boyfriend loophole” by making it a felony “for an individual ‘convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence’ to transport, possess or receive a firearm.”

Individual states – including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia – are not waiting for congressional action; they have moved to protect their citizens and have passed life-saving legislation. Recently approved laws ban assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition and ghost guns (that is, firearms that are rendered untraceable by a variety of means and can be acquired with no background check). These laws strengthen purchase requirements, enhance background checks and raise the minimum age to purchase weapons. These actions could incentivize legislators in neighboring states to demonstrate bold leadership.

We need more public advocacy and legislation

The public must continue to advocate for the passage of national gun safety laws that ban the ownership of automatic weapons and require rigorous background checks. Although the 118th Congress has been slow to pass legislation, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have lingering legislation that would prove effective in reducing gun violence.

Introduced in 2021, H.R.8 would mandate supervision, by a licensed individual, manufacturer or dealer in the transfer of a firearm between individuals.

In December 2022, 70 mayors of cities that have experienced mass shootings stood together to urge Senate leaders to act upon the Background Check Expansion Act. The legislation would prohibit firearms transfers “between private parties unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check,” as stated in the bill’s summary. This act, reintroduced to the Senate in 2023, is currently in committee. It and the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022 have passed in the House.

In January 2023, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced an assault weapons ban (AWB) bill and a bill titled the Age 21 Act to protect the American public. The AWB bill would ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The Age 21 Act would raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21.

The public must continue to advocate for the passage of national gun safety laws that ban the ownership of automatic weapons and require rigorous background checks.

Congress must also repeal the 2005 S.397 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which “prohibits civil liability lawsuits against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others.” This legislation fails to hold the manufacturers of dangerous weapons responsible for their role in the national spread of millions of firearms. Unexpected progress was made in 2022 when family members of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting won a $73 million settlement in a lawsuit against Remington. The weapons manufacturer had made the AR-style rifle used in the 2012 shootings of six educators and 20 first-grade children in Newtown, Connecticut.

We must continue to promote federal laws similar to New York’s Red Flag Law (also called the Extreme Risk Protection Order law) as preventive measures that allow law enforcement, following a due process judicial proceeding, to confiscate guns from potentially dangerous individuals who are judged to pose a risk to themselves and to others.

Finally, we must urge U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to rejoin U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in collaborating on a police reform bill to strengthen background checks and other gun safety measures.

Presbyterians and people of all faiths: Continue demanding that Congress act now!