A Massachusetts lesson on gun safety

Congress should follow our lead in curbing gun violence

EARLIER THIS MONTH, I joined Sen. Ed Markey and several community leaders at Roxbury Community College in Boston to discuss ways to influence the national gun safety debate.  We came together as legislators, law enforcement officials, community organizers, clergy, and concerned parents seeking to move the debate forward before more American lives are lost, before another national tragedy.

The frustration in the room was evident. Many thought the political tide had turned after 20 innocent children were killed in Newtown, or after the Charleston church shooting, or the recent tragedy on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Yet Congress still has not enacted any meaningful legislation to combat the epidemic of gun violence.

Memorial for Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 26, 2012, 12 days after the shootings.

Memorial for Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut, following the December 14, 2012, shootings. (Photo via Creative Commons.)

The 33,636 gun-related deaths in the United States last year—a number equal to the population of my hometown of Natick—gave the group 33,636 reasons to work harder, and to work smarter for more effective solutions. Unfortunately, while we see this call to action after shocking events of mass casualty, too often we fail to realize the reality in our neighborhoods and on our streets.

Ninety people are killed per day at the barrel of a gun. Two-thirds of gun deaths are by suicide. An additional 76,000 people are wounded or maimed by a gun per year. A 2009 study from University of Pennsylvania epidemiologists found that people possessing a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those who do not possess a gun. Further evidence indicates that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt, or homicide than it is for self-defense. We have enough firearms to arm every man, woman, and child in the United States. Easy access to firearms is the problem, not the solution.

On August 13, 2014, I proudly stood alongside my colleagues as Gov. Deval Patrick signed House Bill 4376, An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence. Instead of passing a reactionary bill and asking questions later, we worked with gun owners, gun dealers, police officers, mental health specialists, school superintendents, fellow legislators, parents of mentally ill children—everyone who has a stake in the community—to develop comprehensive, effective legislation.

The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security traveled all over the Commonwealth hosting legislative hearings to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to be heard and informed on the issue. The final legislation brought Massachusetts into compliance with NICS, a national database of criminal and mental health background checks and developed action plans in case of a school shooting. It also gave law enforcement the authority to deny a gun permit if the applicant is deemed unfit to carry a firearm.

It is because of effective legislation such as this, in addition to our safe storage laws, that Massachusetts has far fewer accidental shootings than any other state. According to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Massachusetts had the lowest number of gun deaths per capita of any state in 2012.

Why then, with all of this information available, has Congress failed to act? To start, federal funding for the gathering of data on gun violence—the mere gathering of data—was banned from 1996 until 2013. Plenty of bills have been filed, including one from Sen. Markey that would address the lack of funding for gun violence research, while another from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat of New York, would require liability insurance for gun owners.

I believe mandatory liability insurance would be an effective deterrent to many gun tragedies while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners. Gun insurance would be put in place not to punish, but rather to influence the behavior of gun owners. Gun insurance rates would be based on a variety of market forces, including the type of gun owned, the number of guns owned and safety training. It is important to note that when motor vehicle operators were required to buy insurance, operators practiced more responsible driving behavior leading to the dramatic decline of motor vehicle deaths over time.

While we will never be able to prevent every gun-related crime from happening, our goal is—and Congress’s role should be—to respect the rights of gun owners while also limiting unnecessary accidents and negligence. Much ink has been and will continue to be spilled about the pros and cons of gun safety legislation.

As I sat among community leaders at Roxbury Community College, I could not help but think of the words of Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times column: “We’re angry, but we also need to be smart.” As in Massachusetts, Congress’s approach must be equal parts surgical and palatable.

We will never prevent all gun violence, but we cannot ignore the common sense solutions that have worked and the creative ones that might save even more lives.  How can we continue to tolerate senseless tragedies like the Tennessee boy who shot and killed his 8-year-old neighbor, over a dispute about a puppy, with a shotgun he found in an unlocked closet? Or the death of an Arizona shooting range instructor who was accidentally killed by a 9-year-old girl operating an Uzi?

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It will be up to a new president and Congress to take up measures to address gun violence; I like what I am hearing so far from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, in the two hours that we met and brainstormed at Roxbury Community College, 22 more people were killed or injured in this country by guns. We simply do not have time to lose—the lives of our next generation of leaders depend on it.

David Linsky represents the 5th Middlesex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.