Passing assault weapons bill is a matter of life and death

I don’t ever want to hear another politician offer “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. I don’t ever again want to look into the eyes of parents of dead first- and second graders, as I did in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. I don’t ever want to attend another funeral for a slain student, which I did all too frequently as CEO of CPS.

SHARE Passing assault weapons bill is a matter of life and death
From left, Imad Saadeh, Gwendolyn Baxter, Jaquie Algee, Lauren Bennett, Pastor Cornelius Parks, and Conttina Patterson sit in front of the Illinois House Judiciary Committee at the first hearing on the Protect Illinois Communities Act in Chicago on Dec. 12.

From left, Imad Saadeh, Gwendolyn Baxter, Jaquie Algee, Lauren Bennett, Pastor Cornelius Parks, and Conttina Patterson sit in front of the Illinois House Judiciary Committee at the first hearing on the Protect Illinois Communities Act in Chicago on Dec. 12.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Illinois has a chance to join seven other states and Washington, D.C., in banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that are the weapon of choice for mass shooters like the one who killed seven people and wounded 48 others in Highland Park on July 4.

The Highland Park victims are among more than 3,200 Americans killed in over 600 mass shootings so far this year. Illinois communities have not been spared in recent years, with mass shootings taking place in cities that include Aurora, DeKalb, Zion, East St. Louis, Yorkville, Waukegan, Decatur, Wheeling, Rockford, Crest Hill, North Chicago, Romeoville, Elgin, Joliet and Peoria.

Hundreds of victims live in Chicago neighborhoods served by Chicago CRED, which I founded in 2016 to combat gun violence. In fact, this year alone, dozens of shootings involving four or more victims have taken place. One, on the West Side in Garfield Park in November, involved 14 people — including a 3-year-old — who were wounded during a peaceful vigil to memorialize the passing of a family member.

Our organization and our community partners have directly served more than 1,200 people in Chicago, most of whom have experienced gun violence as victims, witnesses and offenders. They have lost countless friends and family members and suffered unspeakable injuries. The level of trauma is beyond measure.

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We don’t have to resign ourselves to living with mass shootings. When a gunman shot 35 people in 1996 in the Australian state of Tasmania, where my wife is from, Australia passed new gun laws and instituted a massive buy-back program. They did not have a mass shooting for 20 years, while America averages roughly two a day.

When a gunman killed 50 people and wounded 50 others in New Zealand in 2019, the government quickly banned all assault weapons. What a remarkable and life-affirming gift to future generations. Imagine if we gave that gift to our children.

America is virtually alone among high-income countries for its lax gun laws because of a broken political system that enables the gun lobby to control Congress, using lies, threats and fear-mongering to convince Americans they need assault weapons — when there is simply no justification for them.

You don’t use assault weapons to hunt. You don’t need them for protection. And they are obviously not meant for target shooting. They have only one purpose — to kill or wound as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.

With fear of crime running high, it is mind-boggling that we are unable or unwilling to pass laws that will keep guns away from people who should not have them. That includes troubled young people, adults suffering from mental health issues, violent spousal abusers, and political extremists. For once, let’s put the rights of our children and families to live without fear ahead of the right to own guns that have no legitimate place in a civilized society.

No more thoughts and prayers

The Illinois proposal would not only ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines, but would also establish a federal-state partnership to stop the flow of illegal guns into Chicago from states with more lenient gun laws. In fact, 60% guns recovered by Chicago police come from outside Illinois.

The proposal also raises the age of eligibility for gun ownership from 18 to 21, an age group especially prone to gun violence. Those 18-20 are three times more likely to kill than those who are 21 and older. The proposal includes exceptions for those serving in the military and allows for guardian-supervised hunting.

Lastly, the proposal allows the state to remove guns from individuals deemed dangerous and doubles the possible length of a “firearm restraining order” from six months to a year.

I don’t ever want to hear another politician offer “thoughts and prayers” after another mass shooting. I don’t ever again want to look into the eyes of parents of dead first and second graders as I did in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 after a 20-year-old man used his mother’s assault rifle to kill 20 children and six adults. I don’t ever want to attend another funeral for a slain Chicago Public Schools student, which I did all too frequently as CEO of CPS.

Every state should finally adopt reasonable, common sense gun laws that will make it much harder for deranged individuals to slaughter innocent people.

I strongly urge the people of Illinois to join with millions of people in California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York as well as Washington, D.C., and push for adoption of HB 5855, the Protect Illinois Communities Act.

It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Arne Duncan is a managing partner at Emerson Collective, the founder of Chicago CRED, and a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

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