“The question before us is, what is this Congress waiting for? Over the last 12 years, gun-related crimes claimed more American lives than AIDS, war, and illegal drug overdoses combined. Since Newtown, tens of thousands of lives have been lost to this deadly crisis. The number of bills that have been debated and passed by this Congress to prevent such deaths is zero.” — House Democrats Letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, June 2016
It has been more than three years since a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders and six adults. Since that time, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been over 900 mass shootings in our country, killing over 1,000 people and wounding thousands more. By the way, those sobering statistics include the 49 people killed and 53 wounded at the Pulse nightclub, along with 27 other less-publicized mass shootings that have happened since the carnage in Orlando—which currently holds the distressing distinction of being the deadliest mass shooting on our nation’s soil.
Like many Americans, I am left to wonder: when will enough be enough? How much more innocent blood needs to be shed; how many more lives must be horrifically—and needlessly—wiped away; and just how many more justifications are left in this seemingly bottomless well of excuses to pardon federal inaction on common sense gun reform as the disease of mass gun violence continues to fester?
In the wake of the latest, deadliest mass shooting, Republicans in Congress called for a moment of silence, while Democrats clamored for long-overdue change. The momentum for change began with Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Murphy and joined by two Senate Republicans, who launched a filibuster calling for congressional action on gun reform. Senate Democrats wanted votes on two resurrected proposals: an amendment to prevent people on the government’s terrorism watch list from buying guns and another on expanding background checks. Senate Democrats were victorious in their fight. Votes will be allowed on the proposals, but these proposals have been debated and voted on before—and both failed. Days after a gunman opened fire in a crowded nightclub, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a now all-too-familiar moment of silence. While a handful of Democrats walked out, boycotting the moment of silence, another group, led by Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of our country’s civil rights movement, walked onto the floor of the House and declared that, yes, enough is indeed enough.
“We were elected to lead, Mr. Speaker. We must be headlights, and not taillights. We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence in our nation. Deadly mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent. Mr. Speaker, this is a fact. It is not an opinion. We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone,” he said before he, and fellow Democrats, borrowed a 20th century tactic to address our 21st century dilemma of mass shootings and occupied and House floor with a sit-in, demanding that the House take a vote on gun violence prevention legislation.
To be sure, for many of us, there is healing and national reflection to be found in vigils, memorials and moments of silence, but there are lives to be saved when we act. The families and friends of these innocent victims should be attending birthday parties, graduations and weddings—not unplanned funerals. Symbolism and sympathy can no longer be the extent of what our elected officials have to offer a nation gripped in needless gun violence.
This new momentum on safety has moved beyond the halls of Congress. The Supreme Court recently upheld a federal law that keeps people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. The families of the victims of the Sandy Hook gun massacre are suing Remington Arms and other gun manufacturers for selling the gun used by the killer to take the lives of their loved ones. Perhaps we, as a nation, have reached a critical tipping point? Perhaps the massacre in Orlando will push us to look at common sense ways to reduce gun violence? How can anyone argue that not putting guns in the hands of known abusers or people who are on terrorism watch lists puts the rights of legitimate gun owners at risk?
There is more we can and must do to reduce gun violence in our country, like banning AR-15-type weapons from civilian ownership or requiring all gun buyers to undergo a background check—no matter where or how they purchase a gun—and we can all join in that effort. One sit-in does not a victory make. The struggle for common sense gun reform is far from over. We can all do more than agree we need change—we can make it. Call your representatives, sign petitions, be impatient about sweeping laws that allow guns to get into the wrong hands into the legislative dustbin. Let’s remember, respect and honor the victims of mass shootings by saving future lives.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.