State Leaders Must Act on Gun Violence
2016 is shaping up to be a landmark year for the gun-violence-prevention movement. The year opened with President Obama's radio address announcing his plan to focus on America's gun-violence epidemic in the remaining year of his presidency. Days later, on January 4, flanked by survivors of gun violence from communities across the country, the president once again addressed the nation in a moving speech lamenting the polarized and gridlocked state of the gun-policy debate.
In that second address, President Obama called upon all Americans to stand up to the powerful gun lobby and take action to enact commonsense policies to prevent some of the country's annual 33,000 gun deaths. He also unveiled a series of executive actions that, while modest in the context of all that needs to be done to strengthen our nation's gun laws, present a thoughtful approach to addressing many aspects of gun violence.
Notably, the president announced new guidance explaining that all commercially oriented, profit-driven sellers of guns are required to obtain a gun dealer's license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). This guidance provides much-needed clarity to gun sellers and law enforcement, and it will help ensure that all commercial sellers are subject to ATF oversight and required to conduct background checks for all gun sales. While the guidance does not fully close the loophole in federal law that allows private individuals to sell guns without a background check, it is a meaningful step forward in reducing the number of such sales.
President Obama also outlined a number of actions aimed at improving the operation of the background-check system, strengthening enforcement of existing gun laws, encouraging innovation in smart-gun technology, and adding resources to improve access to mental-health care.
Given the absolute inaction on this issue in Congress, the president's use of executive authority to address gun violence should come as no surprise. Not only has Congress failed to pass a bill to require background checks for all gun sales, or even enact legislation that would strengthen current law to prevent dating-partner abusers and stalkers from having easy access to guns — both bills that, notably, have the support of a vast majority of Americans — but Congress failed even to remove a harmful budget rider that effectively prevents the Centers for Disease Control from conducting basic research into gun deaths.
Fortunately, in the absence of congressional action at the federal level, state leaders have many opportunities to follow President Obama's example and act to implement smart policies to prevent gun deaths and improve the enforcement of current gun laws. In fact, there has already been significant progress in strengthening gun laws at the state level.
There are now 18 states that have acted to close the private-sales loophole and require background checks for all gun sales. State legislatures across the country — in both red and blue states — have acted to ensure that domestic abusers do not have easy access to guns. And while efforts persist in many states to weaken gun laws — e.g., by eliminating permit requirements for gun carrying, or by allowing guns to be carried in more locations, including churches, college campuses, and daycare centers — these efforts now face strong opposition from a well-organized gun-violence-prevention movement.
But state leaders can and should do more. In addition to pushing for new legislation, state leaders must find opportunities to take non-legislative action to better protect their citizens from gun violence.
In December, with two of my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, I released a report that offers 28 ideas for executive action that state and local leaders — including governors, attorneys general, mayors, and leaders in law enforcement and public health — can take to address many aspects of gun violence. The ideas included in the report provide suggestions for how to strengthen background checks, target enforcement against illegal gun traffickers, improve data collection and analysis, increase community engagement to prevent gun violence, and enhance regulation of the gun industry. While every state has different laws and unique challenges with respect to gun violence, the ideas offered in this report present wide-ranging options for state and local leaders that can be tailored to individual states and communities.
A number of state leaders have already taken strong steps to use their executive authority to address gun violence, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring in Virginia, Gov. Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York.
To be truly effective at reducing the staggering number of gun deaths in this country, we need a comprehensive approach that includes action at the federal, state, and local levels and that includes both legislative change and executive action. The president's actions are a significant step forward and a welcome opening to a year that has the promise of being a turning point in the movement to prevent gun violence.
Now, state and local leaders must rise to the president's challenge. They must respond to the crisis of gun violence in a manner that makes our communities safer and honors the epidemic's hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors.
Chelsea Parsons is the vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress.