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Voices

Let’s get real about guns — now

A grassroots movement has emerged in Vermont, where gun laws have been nearly nonexistent and its politicians have waffled over the issue for years. But on the national level, only voting will move the issue forward.

Saxtons River

Post Orlando, let’s get real.

The latest massacre in the United States, and its worst to date, was not about ISIS. It was not about Muslims or Islam. It was not about mental illness.

It was about guns and how easy they are to obtain in this country.

It was about our incredible inability to effect legislation that would do something about what is now recognized as a national embarrassment as well as a continuing national tragedy, one that is finally acknowledged to be a major public-health issue.

The shocking numbers support that claim.

Last year, 469 people died as a result of 371 mass shootings. So far this year, at least 288 people have died in 182 mass shootings.

Since Orlando, more than 125 people have been killed by guns, 269 were injured, and five mass shootings have occurred.

We don’t even hear about most of these events, or the fact that nearly 10,000 American children are killed or hurt by guns every year. Nationally, guns kill twice as many children and young people as cancer and 15 times more than infection, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Let that sink in.

Here’s another startling statistic. In 2010 there were 3.6 gun murders per 100,000 Americans. In Canada and Portugal, there were 0.5. Many other countries ranked even lower than that, including Australia at 0.2. (Does anyone seriously think they have fewer mentally ill people per capita than we do?)

* * *

Last month, a story in Seven Days revealed that a reporter bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in South Burlington for $500 cash with “no paperwork and no background check.”

“[The seller] had no idea who I was or what my intentions were,” Paul Heintz wrote. “Nine minutes after I met the man, I drove away with the sort of weapon used 39 hours earlier to slaughter 49 people in Orlando.” A woman in Philadelphia reported a similar experience, beating Heintz’s time by two minutes.

Sadly, my home state of Vermont has the nation’s most permissive gun laws, so what took place when Heintz bought his gun, the same kind that killed all those children and their teachers in Newtown, Conn., was legal.

The same kind of gun, by the way, also killed the people in Aurora and the people in San Bernardino.

* * *

What will it take to end the madness?

One answer comes from a grassroots movement in Vermont, where gun laws have been nearly nonexistent and its politicians have waffled over the issue for years.

Gun Sense Vermont (GSV), an example for others, has been effectively moving reluctant politicians and prospective candidates toward action.

Since startup three years ago, GSV’s track record is impressive.

It first began a conversation about guns in the Statehouse. Then last year, state senators received 1,400 letters from constituents along with 12,000 petition signatures calling for action, all from Vermonters.

Two Senate committees seriously considered gun-related issues, and gun-owning groups announced a plan to lead a Vermont version of the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project, which gives firearms dealers and ranges tools to identify potentially suicidal customers.

The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send a bill to the full Senate which would make it a state-level violation for felons to have guns, and to require that court records of dangerous individuals be submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And the governor signed into law a bill to prevent gun violence.

“Gun Sense Vermont is a growing, bipartisan, grassroots organization that focuses on closing gaps in Vermont’s gun laws that make it too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands,” says Ann Braden, founder of GSV.

“We come from all walks of life and 160 Vermont towns and every voting district,” Braden adds. “We are united in our call for commonsense action that protects the rights of individuals as well as those of our communities.”

After Orlando, Vice President Joe Biden sent a letter to people who signed a petition calling on the government to ban AR-15-type assault weapons from civilian ownership. In it he addressed the thriving gun culture in this country which allows gun violence to continue.

“The President and I agree with you,” he wrote. “Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines should be banned from civilian ownership.”

Biden wrote that the weapons “have been used to commit horrific acts.”

“They’ve been called ‘the perfect killing machines,’” he wrote.

Then he explained that the 1994 bill that banned assault weapons expired two years ago and was never renewed.

“How can that be?” we might ask. The answer, in two words: Republican Congress.

* * *

The vice president also discussed other legal measures that could be taken — measures that were debated and defeated in the Senate in June, a shameful event that resulted in a sit-in by Democrats demanding action in the House of Representatives.

Faith leaders, law-enforcement officials, businesses, public-health experts, the majority of gun owners, and some legislators are calling for legislation that will help put an end to death by gun violence in this country.

All over America, millions of people are marching, pleading, praying, weeping for gun control.

But pleading and prayers won’t do it. Neither will stigmatizing the mentally ill or spewing rampant Islamophobia or fear-mongering about ISIS.

Voting will help do it. That’s why this year is so important.

If we want to confront the gun culture that is ripping our nation apart, now is the time, once and for all, to get real about guns.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #363 (Wednesday, June 29, 2016). This story appeared on page E1.

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