Americans are living in a culture of never-ending gun violence and it’s wearing on them. Recent polling shows that 89% of Americans support background checks on all gun sold in this country to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Even here in Tennessee, recent polls conducted by both Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt showed 83% and 84% respectively of all respondents, including those identifying as republican and tea party supporters, favor expanding background checks for all gun sales. Despite the overwhelming popularity for this common sense measure to reduce the number of guns getting into the wrong hands, our state and local officials have failed to take any action to expand background checks.
After months of study and feedback from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Attorney General, law enforcement, prosecutors, and gun violence prevention organizations, today President Obama will be announcing his proposal of Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence and Make Our Communities Safer.
The President does not have the authority to create new laws. That is the role of the legislative bodies. The upcoming executive actions related to clarifying who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns and therefore required to perform background checks will enforce laws already on the books and will make it easier for police and prosecutors to take action. Truly individual sellers, including those selling or trading guns with family, will not be impacted in any way.
“The President’s decision to clarify and enforce the law requiring more gun sellers to conduct background checks will be a real setback for criminals and traffickers who have exploited these loopholes for too long.” said Beth Joslin Roth, Policy Director of The Safe Tennessee Project. “American citizens are fed up with gun violence and Congress’s refusal to address it. Today President Obama is standing up and taking action. We are grateful to see the President listening to the voices of the American citizens who are looking for leadership on this important issue.”
In 2011, Kevin Dawson was a well known, high volume gun trader who regularly traded guns at gun shows in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville when he sold a gun to Jesse Matthews, a fleeing felon. Not long after, Matthews used the gun to murder Sgt. Tim Chapin of the Chattanooga Police Department. ATF agents were aware of Dawson’s gun sales and had advised him to obtain a federal firearms license, which he refused to do. Eventually agents posing as gun traffickers bought numerous firearms from him and offered a machine gun in trade for other guns. They were then able to arrest him. He later pled guilty to engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license.
“These are the types of sellers that concern us most,” explained Roth. “These high volume private sellers have been able to fly below the radar, selling guns to to felons, to cop killers, to anyone with cash in hand. Clarifying the definition of “engaged in the business” will allow both federal and local law enforcement to immediately intervene and put a stop to these operations. No more ambiguity and hiding behind the “occasional trade” language previously applied to all private sales.”
Other measures proposed include a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care, funding for 200 new ATF agents to help enforce gun laws, hiring additional NICS (National Instant Background Checks Service) examiners, and significant improvements to make the NICS system more efficient and robust.
While it’s true that these actions won’t put an end to the mass shootings that dominate our news cycles every month or so, it’s important to note that these mass shootings, while horrible and jarring, actually make up a small percentage of the overall gun violence in our country. Every day gun violence in the form of suicides, homicides, domestic violence shootings and accidental shootings, an alarming number of which take the life of children, happen daily in communities across our country. Studies show that states that have expanded background checks have seen dramatic drops in suicides, women murdered by men, and law enforcement officers killed on the job.
Currently, Tennessee is ranked 6th in the nation for women murdered by men, 9th for accidental shootings, and in a report just released yesterday by the Violence Policy Center, we are currently ranked 11th in then nation for overall gun violence. In an given year, around 600 Tennesseans use a gun to take their life. Any steps that can reduce the number of Tennesseans lives lost to bullets is significant. As President Obama said earlier this week, “we know we can’t stop every act of violence, but if we tried to stop just one?”
“The issue of gun violence is complicated,” said Roth. “There’s no easy answer to the problem. But, doing nothing isn’t an option. Not anymore.”