Much has been said and written in favor and in opposition of gun control since the Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded. The heinous crime has cracked the half-century-long gun debate wide open, bringing the disclosures from the margins to prime time and center stage. Today, Vice President Joe Biden will issue a set of gun control recommendations to the President, and regardless of what is included and what is omitted from these recommendations, I hope, simply, that common sense prevails.
It is not my intention to mitigate the significance of the recent atrocities in anyway, nor do I intend to minimize the severity of the events that took place, but I wish to articulate the truth; that Newtown, Conn., is just one of many communities that has experienced gun violence and its carnage. Furthermore, Aurora, Colorado, is but one of hundreds of communities across this great nation that has seen firsthand the terror an individual can cause in mere seconds when wielding a firearm equipped with high-capacity magazines. Philadelphia has been a war zone for years, and it is for this reason that my colleagues and I in the Pennsylvania legislature cannot allow this conversation to subside without first addressing the issues through legislation.
Despite the extreme polarization of the gun debate in this country, one thing is clear; cold blooded murder is senseless.
Proponents for relaxed gun laws often use the “guns don’t kill people, people do” idiom as a way of refocusing the debate onto personal responsibility and mental health as opposed to prohibition and gun restrictions. Ironically, it is my belief that the same argument can be used to justify implementing statewide and/or national guidelines that will advocate personal responsibility and help to screen potential gun owners who may suffer from mental illness or who may share residency with someone who does.
Guns don’t kill people, people do; therefore, “people” should be at the heart of any gun debate. As a public servant, it is my duty to be inclusive and to address any issue from a position that encompasses the interests of many, so it is clear to me that the “people” at the hear of this gun debate must include both the victim and the criminal; the individual and the public.
While most of the uproar over gun safety and gun control has centered on restriction versus second amendment rights, I believe that real change will happen only when we reframe the argument in an appropriate context; public safety. A constitutional argument over gun rights limits the scope of the debate to ownership and ownership alone, while focusing the discourse on public safety allows us to address what responsible gun ownership should look like in a society made up of “people.”
There are responsible gun owners out there. These are the people who have clean bills of health, visit doctors for yearly examinations, adhere to safety requirements when firing and store their weapons in childproof locations that are fully secured and locked. These people are also mindful of others who may attempt to access their weapons and are honest and concerned about any security threat to their firearms. These people realize that situations and environments change and that it is not enough simply to assess the threat to public safety at the time a weapon is purchased; rather they understand that gun ownership is a daily responsibility. As people come in and out of their lives and homes, they make sure their firearms are secure. As their own personal health, or that of those they live with, changes, they assess their ability to handle their guns responsibly. There are responsible gun owners out there, but there are also those who are not.
There is no denying that irresponsible gun ownership leads to the type of reckless violence seen in Colorado and Connecticut last year and in the city of Philadelphia on a nightly basis. Whether it is illegal ownership, ownership with criminal intent or with negligence, irresponsible gun ownership is the problem. Our gun laws should establish a rigorous system of checks and balances that deters and punishes irresponsibility when it comes to guns.
The gun-related statistics in Philadelphia and across the state are of epidemic proportions. There are roughly 400 murders calculated in the city of Philadelphia annually and that has been the trend for the past thirty years. 85 percent of homicides in the city are committed with hand guns, and, on another note, 85 percent of those victims are either African-American or Latino. Statewide, gun-related crimes reach far above 10,000 annually.
The numbers are staggering. With over 600,000 firearms being purchased or privately transferred each year in the Commonwealth, it is in the best interest of all of our citizens, including those responsible gun owners, to have gun laws that are sensible. This includes: improved, thorough background checks; detailed, regular mental health evaluations for gun owners and potential gun buyers and similar evaluations for family members that share residency; improved methods of documenting private gun transfers; and, perhaps the most controversial, restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
As I prepare to introduce a military-style assault weapons bill in the coming legislative session, I understand that these types of restrictions may not be popular amongst some gun owners. The truth of the matter is, military-style weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines give criminals and other irresponsible gun users the ability to maximize damage, which ultimately results in greater loss of life. Giving civilian access to military-style weaponry is nonsensical given the high propensity of mass murderers to use these weapons to carry out their massacres. A sensible approach to gun laws dictates that firearms with reasonable recreational, self-defense and sporting uses be protected, but military style guns are proven to be nothing more than killing machines in the hands of irresponsible civilians.
There is no legislation that will completely deter or eliminate crime. Reframing the gun debate in the context of public safety and personal responsibility should be the first steps to changing the culture of gun violence that exists in our country today. Addressing mental health and criminal behavior are the next logical steps and will require the assistance of every law-abiding citizen if we wish to cultivate an environment where innocent children, women and men are safe in their homes and in the public sphere.
State Rep. Ronald G. Waters, a Democrat, represents Philadelphia.