For decades, America has struggled to talk about our gun violence problem. That’s changing.
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed historic legislation to require universal background checks and close the Charleston loophole (so named for the 2015 South Carolina mass shooting in which the killer was able to purchase a gun because his background check hadn’t cleared within three days).
This marks the first time in a quarter-century that Congress has acted to curb gun violence. During that time, more than a million Americans have been killed or wounded by firearms.
Despite our country’s breathtaking violence, the gun lobby has long pressured elected leaders to stay silent. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in my career, beginning in my own communities and in the Pennsylvania State House.
After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, a team of legislators and I founded the PA-SAFE Caucus to fight for commonsense gun legislation. As we wrote our mission statement, however, several people at the table suggested that we leave out the word “gun.” We were outraged and saddened by the latest killing — yet some were unsure if our country was ready to use a three-letter word to describe what brought us there.
Over the next few years, our state made halting progress. In 2013, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on universal background checks. In her courageous testimony, Sandy Hook mother Francine Wheeler asked: “If we all agree dangerous individuals shouldn’t have guns, then shouldn’t we take at least the most basic steps to ensure that they can’t get around the system?”
Despite Wheeler’s bravery, however, the House chose not to vote on background checks. We continued to advance similar legislation every term, but the majority party would not pass these measures.
Meanwhile, mass shootings seared themselves into our consciousness: Aurora; Washington Navy Yard; San Bernardino; Orlando; Las Vegas; Sutherland Springs; Santa Fe; Tree of Life; Thousand Oaks.
And in communities across the country, daily violence took a horrific toll. In 2017, nearly 40,000 Americans were killed by firearms — more than half to suicide — and at least another 80,000 were caught in the cross fire. The ripple effects in the lives of families, friends, and communities are incalculable.
But Parkland marked the turning point. After one of America’s deadliest school shootings, student-led groups like March for Our Lives demanded that adults take gun violence seriously.
It made a difference. Last summer, Pennsylvania’s House Judiciary Committee approved several gun safety bills, including a bump stock ban that I authored. Pennsylvania also enacted one domestic violence bill — the state’s first substantive gun safety law in more than a decade. Meanwhile, other states strengthened gun laws as well.
Thanks to activists across the country and a new majority in the U.S. House, change is happening at the federal level,. too. This month, Congress held its first hearings on gun violence in eight years. We heard firsthand about the devastating consequences for victims, survivors, police, emergency medical personnel, and many others.
And then we acted. This week’s bills — including my amendment to allow people at risk of suicide to temporarily transfer their firearms to another person during a crisis — passed by wide margins and now go to the Senate.
We are also grappling with gun violence amid rapid technological change. Recently, I introduced the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act to prohibit the possession of any firearm that is undetectable by airport screening devices, and expand the scope of detection beyond the traditional x-ray — to address the rising threat of plastic guns printed by 3D technology.
These changes ride on the momentum of public support. Imagine: 97 percent of Americans — including gun-owning households — support universal background checks, per a poll released in February. Americans know that if we’re one of the only nations where gun-related tragedies regularly occur, then there must be something we can do to stop them.
And there is. Curbing gun violence is a matter of will — and that will is building. If we keep up the pressure, we will save lives.
Madeleine Dean, a Democrat, represents Pennsylvania’s Fourth District.