What Will it Take for Congress to Act on Gun Responsibility?

The shooting Sunday night in Las Vegas has left me grieving and in shock, but also angry. First, I sadly and sincerely express my condolences to the victims, families, friends, and coworkers of those who lost their lives and of those severely injured. With fifty-nine people dead and hundreds wounded, this is the deadliest shooting carried out by a single individual, but unfortunately feels all too familiar.

Here in Washington, we’ve dealt with over a dozen mass shootings since the start of 2016: from Marysville to Toppenish to Freeman, we have lost twenty two lives, and many more injured, from these massacres. The numbness we are developing as a society is an understandable response to how frequent these attacks have become. But we cannot become complacent; these acts are unacceptable, and we must take steps to prevent any more deaths in the future.

While I’m thankful of the results we have achieved locally to respond to gun violence, we need to do much, much more. Fortunately, though, voters statewide approved Initiative 594 in 2014 and I-1491 in 2016, which took the reasonable steps of requiring universal background checks and eliminating access to firearms to people who have demonstrated to be a significant danger to themselves or others. And through legislative action, Joel’s Law makes it easier for family members to get people experiencing mental illness the help they need before they commit a crime. I also applaud the City of Seattle’s effort to reduce the supply of guns and ammunition in our community and fund efforts to reduce violent crime with its new guns and ammunition tax. At the state level, I sponsored assault weapons bans four times in my 21 years in the Washington State Senate, but they and most other gun safety legislation have failed every time. Other examples of legislation I sponsored include requiring background checks for purchasing firearms at gun shows, safe storage of firearms at home, or completion of a firearm safety education course or documented proficiency with firearms.

It may come as no surprise that the United States is an outlier in the developed world when it comes to rates of gun deaths and ownership, but the statistics may shock you. The U.S. is ranked 11th in the world for gun death rates, with peers such as Panama, Montenegro, and the Philippines. Our gun homicide rate was 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2014, nearly 10 times that of Canada. Our civilian population also owns by far the most guns per capita and in absolute numbers; more than the next 18 highest countries combined.

It’s also important to remember that while mass shootings are highly visible events, 75% of firearm deaths in Washington State were due to suicide in 2015. Adolescents with access to firearms are also 2.6 times more likely to die by suicide than adolescents without access to firearms. We must work to prevent every tragedy, regardless of whether someone is considering hurting themselves or others.

Here at King County, we have taken a public health approach to reducing gun violence: educating people about the importance of safe storage, keeping up-to-date data and information about the nature and extent of gun violence in King County, and engaging with community leaders to reduce gun violence. Council Chair McDermott has lead the charge on this effort on the Council, changing the County’s Comprehensive Plan to promote safe storage and working with the Board of Health to find new ways to intervene and calling on the federal government to act. You can learn more about ways you can help reduce gun violence at our Public Health: Seattle & King County website.

There are so many ways we can improve the system in a way that will save lives and respect the 2nd Amendment. The President and Congressional leaders have offered thoughts and prayers to the victims and applauded the efforts of first responders: but words of sympathy are not enough. You can read this comparison of the statements released by the King County Council’s Democrat and Republican caucuses to understand how differently our two parties view this problem. The NRA has tremendous influence and will continue to control this conversation until we demonstrate how committed the public is to seeing action on this issue.

I encourage you to get involved in any way you can. There are many worthwhile organizations working to create change that need your help. Check out The Alliance for Gun ResponsibilityEvery Town for Gun Safety, or Washington Ceasefire for ways you can help make a difference.

With lines of people waiting to donate blood spilling out the door in Las Vegas, the outpouring of support has shown the strength of our communities. We can use this energy to work towards structural change, but the longer we wait to act, the more lives will be lost.

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