In my community, it seems as if almost every day is a gun murder day. The grieving families and the funeral processions run like clockwork on their journeys to our cemeteries. My own family has been forced to endure this suffering.
In America’s inner cities, suburbs and small towns, gun murders take more than 11,000 lives each year – an annual death toll that is more than three times the total number of Americans who lost their lives during the decade-long war in Iraq.
We cannot fully share the anguish of those who have suffered, but we can utilize the power of their losses to create a safer, more humane society.
For far too long, the advocates of two ingrained American rights have been locked in a debate between our right to reasonable protections against criminal violence and our 2nd Amendment right to own firearms.
Yet, these rights are not inherently contradictory. Common ground can be achieved.
For example, we Americans share an understanding that those who have committed serious crimes and those who are psychologically damaged should not be armed. Our challenge has been to fashion a response to gun violence in which this shared insight is effectively implemented. For some firearms, we have instituted a system of background checks that, for all of its inadequacies, does prevent many inappropriate gun sales from taking place. We can improve that system, and we should.
However, law enforcement representatives have testified in Congress that any system of background checks will be thwarted if people without criminal records are permitted to purchase weapons for criminals. Law enforcement also has advised us that the current federal laws related to such “straw purchases” are inadequate and often impossible to enforce.
The consequences of those failures have been deadly.
In rural Georgia, a woman purchased 64 guns for her boyfriend, a convicted felon who…sent the guns to criminal associates in Oakland, Calif., where police later recovered them at the sites of shootings and other serious crimes.
In Pennsylvania, the families of law enforcement officers Brad Fox and Joshua Miller mourn them after they were cut down by criminals wielding guns that, originally, were legally purchased by others.
In Webster, N.Y., just 10 days after the horrific slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, William Spengler, Jr., a convicted murderer who had been released after serving 17 years in prison, injured two firefighters and killed two, Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka. Their families must be asking us, “How could such a crazed man obtain those weapons?”
The answer to their question is now clear. Like the shooters in California and Pennsylvania, Spengler obtained the weapons through a “straw purchaser.”
These tragedies have laid the foundation for common ground in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Democrat Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and I joined with Republicans Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, a former prosecutor, and Scott Rigell of Virginia, a proud member of the National Rifle Association, to introduce the first bipartisan bill in the House to make firearms trafficking a federal crime. It would impose stiff penalties on straw purchasers.
Within a day, we were joined by six additional Republican and Democratic representatives as cosponsors of the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013 [HR 452].
I am cautiously optimistic that more of our colleagues will join us.
Law enforcement experts have advised us that a dedicated federal firearms trafficking statute is essential, both to deter straw purchasers from buying guns for criminals and to convince those who are caught doing so to cooperate in solving the crimes that result from their actions.
We have no illusions that our proposed legislation will eliminate all gun violence. Still, it can be an important first step toward that goal, common ground that we all can support.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.