The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t be scared by NRA hysteria. Be scared Congress will do nothing.

Fred Guttenberg and others attending a CNN town hall.
Fred Guttenberg and others attending a CNN town hall. (Michael Laughlin/AP)
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IT WAS a stunning moment: The father of a 14-year-old girl killed in a mass shooting at her high school confronted a U.S. senator: “Look at me and tell me. Guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week. And look at me and tell me you accept it and you will work with us to do something about guns.”

Those words from Fred Guttenberg at CNN’s town hall just seven days after his daughter Jaime (“the energy in the room ”) was one of 17 people murdered at a South Florida school were unnerving to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and we hope to other members of Congress. Finally they must recognize that there is a crisis of guns in this country, and that they have an urgent responsibility to do something about it.

We know. We have been here before: after 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007; after a U.S. congresswoman was grievously wounded and six people killed in 2011 in Tucson; after 28 people, most of them just 6 or 7 years old, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. After nine people were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. And, after 58 people were killed at a music festival in Las Vegas last year in what was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

This time, though, it seems there is a difference. Students who lived through the horror at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School refuse to let the deaths of their friends and teachers — and the terror they felt hiding in closets and running from bullets — fade from memory, as has happened too often before. These wondrous young people have marshaled grief, fury and energy into a potent grass-roots movement. It may be — and we say this guardedly, still stung by the absence of action after Sandy Hook — a breakthrough moment.

The first step, as Mr. Guttenberg emphasized, must be to actually say what the problem is — and the problem clearly is guns. Yes, there are other issues at play, such as mental health and violence in our culture, and they too must be addressed. But troubled people and violent videos exist in other countries and yet only the United States is awash in gun deaths — from homicides, suicides, accidental shootings and the ever-increasing mass shootings.

Americans, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. On an average day, 96 people are killed with guns in the United States, and for every person killed two more are injured. In addition to the human toll, there are enormous financial costs in the form of medical bills, lower property values and higher taxes; some estimate the annual tab at upward of $100 billion. Behind those sobering facts is another statistic: Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns.

To seriously confront gun violence — save lives and prevent injuries — there have to be fewer guns. We would start with banning the semiautomatic rifles that — along with large-capacity ammunition magazines — have become the weapon of choice of mass shooters wanting to kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. A radiologist who treated gunshot victims from Stoneman Douglas wrote in the Atlantic about the devastating effect of high-velocity bullets delivered by the AR-15. Internal organs were obliterated “with nothing left to repair” leaving the victims “with no fighting chance at life.” These weapons are for war, not civilians. Those who say they enjoy the sport of shooting them as target practice need to ask themselves if their hobby is really worth the lives lost and the fear that has been instilled in such simple customs as going to school, worshiping at church or watching a movie.

The ban on assault weapons that was in place in the United States from 1994 to 2004 helped reduce the frequency and lethality of mass shootings, according to analysis by The Post’s Christopher Ingraham. There were some limitations but, after the ban expired, mass shootings increased. Australia imposed sweeping gun control, including regulations for storing guns and requirements for gun registry, and started a buyback program in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre that killed 35 people. The result was that gun homicide rates and suicides plummeted. Reacting to a wave of gang shootings in the early 1990s, Connecticut started requiring people to get a purchasing license and pass a background check and a gun safety training course before buying a handgun. Killings fell.

We should be learning from that history and not wasting time on silly talk about arming teachers, walling off schools or fitting children’s backpacks with Kevlar shields. That there has been some acknowledgment — including by President Trump — of the need to raise the minimum age for some gun purchases and strengthen the background-check system is encouraging. But the modest improvements outlined in a bipartisan bill now before Congress don’t go far enough. The background checks should be universal, with no exceptions for gun shows or buying from a stranger on Craigslist. And the FBI needs to have more than three days to collect information and determine who is high risk.

Henry Olsen

counterpointGun rights advocates do themselves no favors by not addressing gun violence

Just as there is the expectation of responsibility and accountability for people who drive cars, so there should be for people who own guns. That means requiring registration, training and insurance.

Other steps are needed. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be strengthened so it can do its job of regulating and tracing guns. Innovations should be encouraged that make weapons safer, such as improved gun triggers or smart guns. Laws should be amended to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers. And research funding should be directed at determining what has worked in reducing gun violence.

Don’t be scared by the hysteria that the National Rifle Association is trying to drum up about the Second Amendment being shredded and the government coming after you. Be scared that Congress again will do nothing, and that another inalienable right — that to life and happiness — will be further eroded.

Read more on this topic:

The Post’s View: The lives we’ve lost in mass shootings — again

The Post’s View: Are you serious about gun control, Mr. Trump? Prove it.

Eugene Robinson; Trump and the GOP won’t act on gun control. So let’s kick them out.

Greg Sargent: Angry about Trump and gun violence? Do this now, Democrats.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Why is only one side in the gun culture war required to show respect?