Our country has a problem with gun violence. It’s a problem for our cities and suburbs, churches and schools. Sadly, Americans have gotten used to watching massacres occur where we work and shop and where our children learn and play. With ever greater frequency, it seems, dangerous people with dangerous weapons are inflicting tragedy on individuals, families and communities. In response, responsible citizens around the nation are delivering a simple message to Washington: Keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.
But even as we are shocked time and again by mass shootings such as those in Columbine, at Virginia Tech and in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown and, most recently, at the Washington Navy Yard, Congress has produced only stalemate and dysfunction. Our national leaders have failed to pass meaningful laws to ensure that people who should not own guns cannot get them.
In the absence of leadership from Washington, it is up to citizens to speak out — and imperative for state and local officials to lead.
Consider background checks. They are supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans — gun owners and non-gun owners — just as vast majorities accept our constitutional right to own guns for self-defense, hunting, shooting or collecting. Although Congress has refused to act, 17 states and the District of Columbia have implemented laws to ensure that gun buyers undergo background checks. And in those places, local leaders are stepping up and creating innovative models for background checks that serve both gun owners and public safety.
At the recent Saratoga Springs Arms Fair, one of the largest gun shows in New York, we saw firsthand a new model for background checks at such events. It would ensure that all gun purchasers get background checks quickly and easily.
It works like this: Guns are tagged at the entrances to the show. Show operators provide access to federally licensed gun dealers to do background checks before completing a sale. All guns are checked on the way out to ensure that background checks were performed. It’s that simple.
These procedures do not infringe on anyone’s constitutional right to bear arms. Rather, they recognize that responsible gun laws go hand-in-hand with the free exercise of gun rights. They recognize that protecting the rights of responsible gun owners, vendors and gun-show operators means ensuring that people who should not own guns can’t get them. What’s more, this new model for responsible gun ownership was drawn up in cooperation with gun-show operators after undercover investigations revealed several years ago that vendors were illegally selling guns to anyone who wanted one. Show operators agreed to work with the New York Attorney General’s Office to close this dangerous loophole — and now nearly every known gun-show operator in that state has signed on.
That sort of cooperation is unheard of these days in Washington, especially around contentious issues such as gun safety — but it doesn’t have to be. All it takes is for both sides to recognize that gun ownership is part of American culture and that people on both sides of the debate are responsible citizens worthy of respect and protection under the law. From that respect can come thoughtful and productive dialogue. By finding common ground and crafting creative solutions, responsible gun owners and state and local officials can take the lead in reducing gun violence.
Americans deserve to live in safe neighborhoods, and they have the right to own guns. If law enforcement, elected officials and responsible gun owners work together, we can make both happen.
Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, represented Arizona’s 8th District in the House from 2007-12 and is a founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, which works to prevent gun violence. Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, is attorney general of New York.