Our Remarks from Senator Kyle’s Gun Violence Town Hall in Memphis

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Hi, I’m Beth Joslin Roth and I’m the Policy Director for The Safe Tennessee Project.

First, I’d like to thank Senator Kyle for convening this Town Hall and for taking on this very important issue. And, I’d also like to thank the other panelists for their involvement and to all of you who have come out tonight to look for solutions to this epidemic of gun violence affecting our entire state and especially the city of Memphis

The Safe Tennessee Project is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization dedicated to reducing the number of gun-related injuries and deaths in our country and in our state through community outreach, building awareness, and policy advocacy.

We see gun violence not as a political issue but as a public health issue and have put together an advisory board of physicians, researchers, and public health professionals to guide our work.  We look at the issue through the lens of credible data, facts, and statistics, and we advocate for evidenced-based policies and programs that have demonstrated efficacy in reducing the number of homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.

We fully support the second amendment and we fully support responsible gun ownership.  We believe that there is common ground to be found on this issue and that we have a moral imperative as researchers, advocates, and citizens to do everything possible to address the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our nation and our state.

A few statistics for you:

  • Tennessee is 9th in the nation for accidental shootings.
  • We are 9th in the nation for death by firearm.
  • We are 12th in the nation for suicide by gun. 600 Tennesseans use a gun to kill themselves yearly.
  • According to the most recent statistics, we are 6th in the nation for women murdered by men. In the last week of October alone, there were 3 murder-suicides in 5 days in our state. In each case, a woman was murdered by a man she knew who then went on to shoot himself.
  • In 2014, gun related deaths surpassed motor vehicle deaths in Tennessee.
  • Gun violence costs Tennessee a whopping $6,393,431.00 per year. Compare that to the $3.7 million we spend on transportation, the $3.8 million on protection, and the $3.7 million on welfare.
  • Wall Street 24/7 ranked Tennessee the 4th most dangerous state in 2015.
  • Earlier this year, the FBI ranked Memphis the 3rd most dangerous city in the country.

But of course, I don’t really need to tell you guys about the gun violence we are dealing with in our state and here in Memphis. Many of you here in this room live with this violence every day.

Law enforcement officers must grow discouraged at the relentless number of people injured and killed, many of them young people.

Prosecutors must grow weary at a caseload that is never ending. So many citizens, again, many of them young people, who will spend years behind bars because they pulled a trigger and took a life.

And of course, those survivors of gun violence. Those who themselves survived a shooting, whose bodies and minds continue to suffer as a result. And, those who grieve the unfathomable loss of a loved one and live every day with that loss.

There is a perception, especially in gun-friendly states like ours, that the issue of gun rights and gun law reform is too polarizing to ever be addressed.

But, that’s not true.

Last week, Middle Tennessee State University released a new poll that showed broad support for gun law reform.

Although 69% of Tennesseans believe that it is more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership, 83% believe we need to expand background checks to all private gun sales, 85% believe that the seriously mentally ill should be prevented from buying guns, 50% support a ban on assault weapons and 55% support a federal registry of gun purchases.

Tennesseans are not alone.  Just two weeks ago at their national conference, the U.S. Police Chiefs Association stated their support for mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.

At the conference, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy spoke about expanded background checks, saying, ”This is a no-brainer, this is the simplest thing in the world. It troubles me all the time.”
 
Currently seventeen states and Washington, DC require background checks for all handgun sales.  And these interventions are effective.
The Brady Campaign reports that in states with expanded background checks, there are 48% fewer law enforcement officers shot to death, 48% fewer suicides by firearms, and 46% fewer woman shot to death by their intimate partners.
 
In a state ranked 6th for women murdered by men and 12th for suicide and where we have seen law enforcement officers shot and killed this year, these possible reductions are significant.
The man who gunned down five U.S. service members in Chattanooga bought his rifles via armslist.com, an online gun exchange that connects private sellers with private buyers.   Background checks are not required.

The MTSU poll also revealed that 85% of Tennesseans support laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns.

However, we know from research that people with diagnosed mental illnesses are very rarely violent towards others. In fact, a great deal of published research shows that better predictors of violence are things like alcohol or substance abuse or past histories of violence, and that these factors may be exacerbated by short-term stressors such as interpersonal altercations, relationship issues, or other major life changes.

The Safe Tennessee Project is currently working with attorneys and gun violence prevention organizations across the country in evaluating possible legal interventions that would allow close family members and law enforcement to immediately intercede when they feel a person is a likely and imminent threat to themselves or others.  Some states have already passed such legislation and a number of others are currently drafting or considering similar bills.
 
The family of the Chattanooga shooter had expressed concerns about his emotional instability and drug use.  They also were also aware that their son owned guns and wanted him to give them up which he refused to do.
Our organization is also very concerned about the accessibility of loaded and unsecured firearms in homes where children are present.

So far this year, we have tracked 19 accidental shootings of children in Tennessee. 7 of them were fatalities including a 4-year-old Memphis boy who found his father’s loaded gun inside while the father was outside doing yard work.

Just over a month ago in White Pine, Tennessee, an 11-year-old little boy asked his 8-year-old neighbor if he could play with her puppy. She said no so he shot and killed her with his father’s loaded and unsecured shotgun. Now, that 11-year-old child is in jail charged with first-degree murder. His father, whose negligence led to this horrific tragedy, will not be charged with anything because in Tennessee, leaving loaded guns where kids can easily access them is not against the law.

We think that should change and are calling on lawmakers to strengthen our child access laws and hold adults responsible for the safe storage of all firearms.

Community outreach is also key to stemming this epidemic, especially in Memphis. Parents, especially single working moms, struggle to keep their children out of trouble and away from bad influences but this is a daunting, often insurmountable task. Children, especially those living at or below the poverty line, are adversely affected by schools that are failing them. Hopelessness is a cancer that is destroying our young people- too many people are ending up in jail cells or in funeral homes. This is the time for community leaders and organizers to work with educators and law enforcement to understand the root causes of the violence infecting these communities. This is the time for faith leaders to come together in prayer but also to come together to take action.

We at Safe Tennessee seek to work with community leaders, faith leaders, and service providers to connect those in need to the resources that can benefit them.

The issue of gun violence is a systemic one. It’s not a problem with an easy solution but there are a few conclusions we can draw:

In a state with a gun violence problem like Tennessee and in a city with a gun violence problem like Memphis, more guns for more people to carry more places is not the solution. Proposing laws to allow easier access to guns in a state awash in gun violence makes little sense.

There are groups invested in pushing the idea that you either support gun ownership or you support banning guns but that just isn’t the case. In fact, there is broad support in Tennessee- and the rest of the country- for common sense gun law reform that keeps all of us safer.

Although bad guys may find ways to get their hands on a gun, why on earth do we make it incredibly easy for them to do so? Whether a prohibited purchaser is a felon, domestic abuser, has been adjudicated mentally ill, or is a possible terrorist, we should do everything possible to keep guns out of their hands.

Mechanisms that allow families and law enforcement to intervene to prevent a possible tragedy make sense and are in the best interest of public safety.

Safe storage of guns saves lives. Steps to strengthen our child access prevention laws must be taken and gun owners whose negligence and irresponsible behavior leads to injury or death must be held accountable .

The issue of gun violence is complicated. But doing nothing isn’t an option. We must continue to study the issue and implement evidenced-based solutions. We will be urging our legislators to listen to voters who support gun law reform and pass legislation that will make Tennesseans safer. Like the Police Superintendent said, ‘It’s a no brainer.’”

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