On a sunny afternoon in Parkland, Florida, Valentine’s Day was transformed from a day to celebrate love into a day to mourn yet another senseless loss of young lives.
There already have been more than a dozen school shootings in the United States this year. And, according to Centers for Disease Control, more than 7,000 children and teens are killed or injured by guns every year, on or off school grounds.
This is a singularly American phenomenon. Around the world, our nation’s rates of bullying, mental illness and non-lethal violence are comparable to other nations. Our rates of lethal violence are exponentially higher than in other developed countries. We are overrun with guns that are easily available to those who shouldn’t have them, because we have weak gun laws.
We know how to solve this problem:
1] Make it harder for people at risk of violence to get hold of guns. People with a history of violence, domestic abuse, alcohol abuse or anger control disorders should be prevented from buying guns.
Licenses for gun buyers and comprehensive background checks, whether a buyer purchases a gun from a licensed store or a private party, will improve screening. But it’s not enough to screen buyers at the time of purchase. Some gun owners become at risk for violence months or years later. We should disarm gun owners who become prohibited from having guns, and create a process for removing guns temporarily from people in crisis.
2] Limit gun access to young people. We should require guns be stored locked and unloaded, especially when there are children or other vulnerable persons at home, and raise the minimum age for gun possession to at least 21. Brain development for teens and young adults continues until the mid-20’s.
3] Limit access to military-style assault weapons and the attachments that increase their lethality, such as high capacity magazines, bump stocks, and silencers.
4] Strengthen oversight of the gun industry. We should stop giving the firearms industry protected status in the form of immunity from tort liability and exclusion from consumer product safety laws. We should give the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and state and local law enforcement the tools and resources to adequately oversee the firearms industry.
These policies would be a good start, and they are supported by a majority of Americans and American gun owners.
We choose not to solve this problem because a single special interest group – the National Rifle Association – opposes these and all other gun safety measures. And in many places, our elected officials care more about their fealty to the NRA than they do the well-being of our kids or the views of the majority of Americans. Case in point: Florida has among the weakest gun laws in the nation, according to the Giffords Law Center.
We can safely predict that the NRA and their allies will argue that arming teachers would solve this problem. Don’t be fooled. The idea that more guns will keep us safer is false and must be strenuously rejected.
They will argue that the problem is mental illness, not guns. We absolutely should restore funding for community mental health services and improve access to care. But that won’t solve our gun violence problem. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence than offenders.
Likewise, the claim that the constitution forbids these reasonable measures is wrong. The Supreme Court has stated that the right to bear arms is subject to reasonable regulation. Maybe it’s time to ask the Supreme Court about the rights of the Parkland parents to see their kids grow up.
It is painfully obvious that children who are afraid to go to school cannot learn. This does not apply only to schools that have suffered mass shootings. Researchers have shown that academic performance suffers after a shooting incident near a school. Until we stop the virtually unfettered proliferation of guns in our country, our kids will continue to experience fear and trauma that keeps them from realizing their full potential.
Our society’s failure to tackle gun violence threatens more than our kids. When a special interest group is allowed to subvert the public’s will, it hijacks our very democracy.
If you are an educator, this is your issue. If you’re a parent, this is your issue. If you’re an American, this is your issue. It’s time to choose: our kids, or our guns.
Here are three things you can do today:
- Join an organization and learn more about solutions to gun violence: Moms Demand Action and Giffords are two; there are many more operating in every state.
- Learn where your elected officials stand on gun safety measures.
- If you are a gun owner, lock up your guns where they cannot be accessed by unauthorized users.
And one more: hug your kids.
Nina E. Vinik is director of the Joyce Foundation’s Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform Program.