We can expect to hear President Obama and Mitt Romney discuss a variety of issues in their first head-to-head debate Wednesday night, but will they talk about guns? With the debate taking place at the University of Denver – located just a short drive from both Aurora and Columbine High School – and with 100,000 Americans killed or injured every year with firearms, you’d think it would be impossible to avoid the topic. Shockingly, though, neither candidate has offered much leadership about solutions to our gun violence epidemic, even as mass shooting tragedies like last Thursday’s workplace shooting in Minneapolis continue to occur with an alarming frequency.
Around the country, concerned Americans are calling on Denver debate moderator Jim Lehrer to ask the candidates about gun violence. But what exactly should Lehrer ask? It would be too easy for both candidates to offer facile condolences and platitudes without the right questions, so here are three questions that both candidates ought to answer about keeping our communities safe from gun violence.
1. Virtually everyone agrees that people should be required to pass criminal background checks before getting their hands on guns. How would you help close the loopholes that allow dangerous individuals to legally buy firearms without fulfilling this basic requirement?
Our background check system is severely broken, with significant gaps that make it too easy for convicted criminals, the mentally ill, and other dangerous people to gain access to firearms. The federal background check requirement – which has prevented almost 2 million gun sales to prohibited people since 1994 – does not even apply to private sales of firearms, which account for about 40% of all gun sales in America every year.
The public overwhelmingly supports strengthening our background check system: 96% of respondents in one poll supported requiring a background check on anyone attempting to purchase a gun. According to another survey, 74% of NRA members and 87% of non-NRA gun owners support the same requirement.
2. As mass shootings across the country continue to increase in both frequency and deadliness, the public is calling for restrictions on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines. Given that both of you have previously supported bans on these military-style devices, what would you do to keep these deadly weapons out of our communities?
The horrific shooting in Aurora was a shocking reminder of the tremendous harm that can be done by assault weapons, equipped with features that enable rapid and accurate spray firing, and large capacity ammunition magazines, some of which can hold up to 100 rounds of ammunition. These military-style devices are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently, and have no place on our streets.
The federal assault weapons ban, which was in effect from 1994 to 2004, led to significant decreases in the use of assault weapons and large capacity magazines in crimes. Since that law’s expiration, a strong majority of Americans polled have consistently supported the adoption of a new federal assault weapons ban.
3. Far too many shootings are caused by individuals who suffer from mental illness. How would you help make sure that mentally ill people aren’t able to buy guns and kill more Americans?
Federal law prohibits mentally ill individuals from purchasing or possessing guns, but, according to a recent report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, millions of mental health records have not been reported to the federal database used in conducting background checks. As a result, numerous mentally ill people could pass background checks and buy guns nationwide. That’s not a hypothetical concern: the shooter at Virginia Tech had been found to be mentally ill, but because that record was not reported, he was able to pass multiple background checks and buy the guns used to murder 32 people.
Americans deserve answers to these questions, just as we all deserve the ability to live free from the threat of gun violence. Public support is strong for a wide variety of measures that can have a real impact on preventing our friends and families from dying in this epidemic. Change has to start with an honest discussion of the crisis at hand. That discussion needs to start now.