By Megan Gramlich
President Obama began the new year with a series of executive actions designed to combat the current unprecedented level of gun violence. During his speech, Obama emphasized the need for a collective sense of urgency. To put the current state of affairs into perspective, consider the fact that there was an average of one mass shooting per day in 2015, and that the United States has the highest rate of mass shootings in the world. Further, guns are killing almost as many people as cars are killing people. Gun violence is a national epidemic, and it is absolutely necessary for the government to take reasonable steps in order to reduce the increasing rate of gun fatalities. In the wake of Congress’ inaction, largely resulting from a political stranglehold imposed by the gun lobby, Obama was forced to take action himself. His recent executive order focuses on strengthening and expanding background checks, especially by closing up loopholes. The executive order also improves mental health care coverage by investing “$500 million to expand access to treatment across the country.” Further, Obama emphasized the need to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms of gun safety laws, and the need to work with private industries in order to improve gun safety technology.
Obama’s actions were met with vehement disapproval from many conservative politicians, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan who called the executive order a “dangerous level of executive overreach.” However, Obama’s actions do not create new law; they simply strengthen existing laws in order to make them more effective at reducing gun violence. Obama’s actions also align more with the desires of the American people than do Congress’ recent actions on gun control. According to a recent poll, 88 percent of Americans “favor a federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers.” This is an astounding consensus, and something that so many Americans agree on should certainly be made law. Unfortunately, many members of Congress, especially Republicans, accept campaign donations from the NRA, so they have a monetary incentive to vote against these interests of the American people. This is a real impediment to our democracy. Obama’s actions, by comparison, seek to protect the interests – and the lives – of the American people.
Ryan also asserted that background checks would not have prevented the recent mass shootings and that they will target law-abiding citizens. He is wrong on both accounts. First, background-checks do not target responsible gun owners. They target people who are highly likely to cause harm to themselves or to others. It is true that anyone who wishes to buy a gun must go through the background check process, but this is not an undue burden on individual liberty. Nor does it bar law-abiding, sound-minded citizens from purchasing guns. Rather, it adds a step to the gun purchasing process in order to ensure that the buyers are, in fact, law-abiding and sound-minded. Despite what the gun lobby, as well as many conservative politicians and presidential candidates, say, it is possible to reconcile the right to bear arms with measures to promote public safety. As Obama said in his speech, “We all believe in the First Amendment, the guarantee of free speech, but we accept that you can’t yell fire in a theater. We understand that there are some constraints on our freedom in order to protect innocent people … We understand that that’s part of the price of living in a civilized society.” Further, it cannot be overstated that someone who has a history of committing violent crimes or who is currently suffering from mental illness should not have a gun, period. Those who have committed violent crimes have essentially forfeited their right to bear arms, and those suffering from mental illness can, hopefully, get the help they need in order to recover and regain their ability to purchase guns (if they so chose) in the future.
Although some argue that background checks are simply ineffective, there are plenty of statistics to corroborate the claim that background checks do save lives. Researchers from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and Johns Hopkins found that that “Connecticut’s handgun purchaser licensing law,” which requires background checks, “is associated with a subsequent [40-percent] reduction in homicide rates.” On the flip side, Missouri’s repeal of its permit-to-purchase law is associated with a 25 percent increase in homicide rates.
Despite the statistical evidence, some argue that background checks are simply ineffective because “criminals can always get guns.” While it’s true that gun regulations don’t make it impossible for criminals to get a hold of guns, they do pose an important and substantial barrier for them to do so. Further, some people assert that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Yet, it’s obvious that guns make it a lot easier for people, who intend harm, to kill other people. Consider this: would you rather have someone come at you with a gun or a knife? If you answered ‘knife’, then you admitted to the fact that it makes a huge difference when dangerous individuals have access to guns, as opposed to something like a knives, which are readily available. Finally, some people simply claim that you shouldn’t pose any limitations on gun purchases because it infringes upon our American liberties. Here, it is important consider the number of lives that are lost due to gun violence. These victims will never get the chance to exercise their individual liberties ever again. Background checks are a small price to pay for the reduction of such tragedies.