It has been nearly 25 years since the last significant federal gun safety law was passed, and in that time an estimated 800,000 Americans have died from gun violence — and today, more than 100 people are killed by guns and 200 more are shot and wounded every day. With the nation in the midst of a pandemic, an economic downturn, a racial justice reckoning, an explosion in gun ownership caused in part by NRA fear mongering, and a rise in armed extremism — issues which are inextricably tied to gun violence — it’s never been more important to act on gun safety than it is now.
Here are six steps the 117th Congress should take to reduce gun violence:
1. Keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them by requiring background checks on all gun sales, which 93% of American voters support
Current federal law requires background checks for gun sales only when buyers shop with licensed gun dealers, and the Charleston loophole allows a gun to be sold before a check is completed. That means felons, domestic abusers, and people involuntarily committed due to mental health can avoid the very system designed to block them from getting guns — simply by buying from strangers they meet on the internet or getting the gun from a dealer before a check is complete. Evidence shows that it is extremely easy to find these no-background-check sales online, and that people who are prohibited from buying guns are going to those unlicensed sellers at much higher rates than gun stores, in order to get armed with no questions asked. And gun sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, overwhelming the background check system and allowing more gun sales to proceed without a completed background check. The 117th Congress must act quickly to require completed background checks on all gun sales — the foundation of any comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy.
2. Intervene before tragedy strikes with an Extreme Risk (or “red flag”) law, which 87% of American voters support
Extreme Risk laws are a critical tool for intervening when someone is clearly in crisis. Where there is evidence that a person poses a serious risk of injuring themselves or others with a gun, these laws enable close family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily block access to firearms. Nineteen states have enacted these laws (seventeen since 2013), and they have been shown to reduce the risk of suicide and prevent mass shootings. A strong federal law would establish an Extreme Risk process that can be used in federal courts in all fifty states, and would provide resources to state systems — helping states implement their laws effectively and encouraging additional states to act. The need is even more urgent as COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis have created a perfect storm in which known suicide risk factors are colliding.
3. Disarm domestic abusers by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
Women in the United States are 21 times more likely to die by gun homicide than women in any other high-income country, and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be shot and killed. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the factors that contribute to our current gun-related domestic violence crisis. But federal law is currently not strong enough to protect victims — because it prohibits abusive spouses from buying a gun, not abusive dating partners who don’t live with the victim, even though women are as likely to be killed by dating partners as by spouses. Congress should take up the same bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill passed in the House in 2019, closing the “boyfriend loophole” and expanding lifesaving protections that disarm domestic abusers.
4. Reduce police violence by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
Police violence is gun violence, and every year, police in America shoot and kill more than 1,000 people. The combination of systemic racism, white supremacy, America’s gun culture, and the militarization of police is toxic — and Black people in particular are paying with their lives. In addition to the loss of life and the pain to family members and survivors, police shootings have a uniquely corrosive impact on the nation: Patterns of police violence dramatically reduce public confidence in police and lead community members to see them as part of the problem. Across the country, racial justice advocates are crying out for meaningful police reform. Congress must pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would take critical steps to address police brutality — including by raising the standard for use of force and making it easier to hold abusive police accountable.
5. Prioritize solutions to the city gun violence devastating communities every day
Gun homicides and assaults occur at shockingly high rates in American cities, violence that heavily impacts racially segregated neighborhoods — reflecting and amplifying this country’s long-standing systemic and structural racism. In fact, in 2015, half of the more than 13,000 gun homicides in the U.S. took place in just 127 cities, which contain less than a quarter of the population. Many of these cities were hit hard by COVID and its economic fallout and faced persistent gun violence over the summer even as other forms of crime declined. Congress should authorize robust long-term funding for proven solutions like community-based violence intervention — and also focus on upstream issues, like empowering the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to shut down gun trafficking into our cities.
6. Undo the damage the gun lobby has done to our laws, which has led to the deaths of countless Americans
For decades, the gun lobby has littered our gun laws with loopholes, weaknesses, and special protections that endanger public safety, all in service of selling more guns and mollifying the extremist elements of the gun rights movement. Now, as a result, we face both rising rates of gun violence and the rise of extremist groups that have exploited our enfeebled laws and regulations to arm themselves. To truly address gun violence, the 117th Congress should undo the gun lobby’s damage to our laws and hold the bad actors in the gun industry accountable. That means treating gun dealers like positions of public trust, with high public safety standards; giving ATF and the Department of Homeland Security the resources and mandate to do their jobs; regulating firearms as consumer products, just like any other household item; ending special legal protections for the gun industry, which prevent bad actors from being held accountable for deadly negligence; and providing robust long-term funding for gun violence data infrastructure and public health research into the causes and solutions of gun violence.