How individuals, community leaders and even physicians can partner for more gun safety in our communities.
In 1999 I was a college student at Indiana University volunteering as the high school Jewish youth group advisor. A neo Nazi left hate mail targeting Jews and black people in mailboxes across campus and in homes.
Blatant white supremacy was rare in our progressive college town. The community came out in droves to protest, shouting messages like "Hate Has No Home Here."
My youth group teens and I passed out yard signs and attended a community rally together. The racist had the nerve to show up and watch us.
I probably would have forgotten the whole incident by now if that white supremacist hadn't gone on a three-day shooting spree that year. He killed a Korean man in Bloomington, shot several Orthodox Jews in a neighborhood I would come to call home, shot a Black man in Decatur and killed beloved Northwestern basketball coach, Ricky Byrdsong.
I think about that shooting every year that I race in Evanston's Race Against Hate in honor of Ricky Byrdsong. And every year that I race, statistics show us that hate is spreading and gun deaths are rising.
There are no easy answers to solve our country's gun violence and rise of white supremacy. But gun violence as a public health issue, specifically, is one that I think about on a daily basis.
The Senate this week released the Safer Communities Act, the bipartisan bill that, if passed, will mark the most consequential federal gun violence prevention policies in 30 years. (You can urge your Senators to pass it here. It takes under 1 minute.)
If passed, the bill will...
Enhance background checks for buyers under 21
Support state Red Flag laws
Disarm domestic abusers
Clarify who has to run a background check
Crack down on gun trafficking
Fund community violence intervention
Invest in mental health
Provide school safety funds
It's not enough, but it's a start.
Meanwhile, as I write this, the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded gun rights for the first time in more than a decade. In a 6-3 decision, SCOTUS struck down a century-old law in New York State requiring applicants for concealed weapons licenses to demonstrate “proper cause” and “good moral character.”
The frequency of mass shootings in our country leaves us distraught, but they also leave us disillusioned that anything will change. The truth is more complicated. This bill is a start, but even without it, there has been significant progress in safer gun laws at the state level, thanks to advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown (which are closely aligned).
Republicans and Democrats alike have joined in advocacy for gun sense laws, and we're making small, incremental wins. Here are a few victories from Everytown:
First Judicial court strikes down guns on campus (December 2021)
Dozens of Moms Demand Action volunteers are running on gun safety platforms and winning local elections (March 2022)
Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed into law S. 4, a comprehensive bill to address the “Charleston Loophole,” strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, reaffirm avenues for medical professionals to protect their patients in crisis and their communities, and more. (March 2022)
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the new state budget, which includes $100 million for the creation of a Violent Crime Intervention Fund. (June 2022)
Advocating for more gun sense laws is not a lost cause. No matter how you vote, there are good people from blue and red states like you who are donating time and money to the cause. Sign up at Moms Demand Action or Everytown for Gun Safety to find out more. None of them are advocating for gun control or taking away Second Amendment rights. They're fighting for commonsense laws that the vast majority of Americans support.
In states that have passed gun safety laws, fewer people die by gun violence. See this chart to compare gun violence as it relates to gun policy across the country, scoring every state on the strength of its gun laws and comparing it with its rate of gun violence.
Rare is the American, even among Second Amendment proponents, who thinks that a known white supremacist who is an actual threat, like the Indiana neo Nazi, should have access to a gun. But still today in Indiana, as in 31 states around the U.S., it's against the law for the police to confiscate guns from a dangerous person. Their hands are tied.
Red flag laws permit police to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who they believe may present a danger to others or themselves.
Red flag laws can help reduce gun violence, mass shootings and gang violence. These shootings kill and injure significantly more people each year than the mass shootings that get more press:
3,713 people in America have been shot and killed since the mass shooting in Uvalde, TX on May 24 (Everytown).
More than 110 Americans are killed with guns every day.
My own city of Chicago has had 279 deaths by gun violence this year. There were 971 shooting in the first five months of 2022 alone. The majority of those guns come from Indiana, where it's easy to buy them.
But here's what also keeps me up at night: The rise in gun sales as a result of gun violence. We're in a cycle that's only spiraling downward.
Consider these sobering facts on gun violence and gun sales:
Americans purchased more than 18 million guns in 2021, making it the second-busiest year for firearm sales in at least two decades, according to estimates — a surge that came amid a spike in gun violence.
Guns are the leading cause of death for kids — and gun sales are surging.
I'm witnessing the increase of gun ownership in my own Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Texas synagogue hostage standoff loom large for Orthodox Jews, especially, because we are so recognizably Jewish when we walk on Shabbat. So does the rise in anti-Semitism in America and the increase of hateful graffiti on synagogues in our community. The Bloomington, Indiana neo-Nazi shot Jews I know in my Chicago neighborhood on their walk home from Shabbat prayers.
Data shows more guns make us less safe
Depending on your background and what newspaper you read, guns make a lot of people feel safer. More guns among my friends and neighbors make me nervous. Here's why:
The U.S. has more guns than people: 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. We are the only country with so many civilian-owned firearms. If guns actually made people safer, we'd be the safest country in the world. We're not.
According to the CDC, in 2020, there were 45,222 firearm-related deaths in the United States – that’s about 124 people dying from a firearm-related injury each day.
Suicides for kids and teens are four times higher than for kids who live in homes without guns.
Nearly 2 out of every 10 non fatal firearm injuries are unintentional. Most people who use a firearm in a suicide attempt, die from their injury.
In the U.S. hundreds of children each year gain access to firearms and unintentionally shoot themselves or others. In 2022 there have been at least 126 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 55 deaths and 78 injuries nationally.
Roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns. And 4.6 million kids live with unlocked, loaded guns.
Women in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to be killed by guns than women in other high-income countries.
The likelihood of a mass shootings looms large in our imagination, as it should in the U.S. It remains a realistic threat. But owning a gun makes accidental shootings, domestic violence and suicide more probable. It's like when someone who's afraid of flying chooses to drive across country to avoid a plane crash. The plane is scarier, but the car isn't actually safer.
The rise of gun ownership, even among well meaning, responsible gun owners still carries risks.
Regardless of how you feel about gun ownership, the more people who carry concealed weapons or store firearms at home has risks for all of us. This requires a behavior change that can make all of us safer.
I've got a few ideas:
How you can help
Pediatricians can help raise awareness
Just as pediatricians ask kids if they wear a helmet and eat vegetables, they should also ask parents about gun storage safety in the home. Ensuring that kids have no access to guns is crucial. This might seem obvious, but I've seen social media posts of people I know and trusted displaying semi-automatic weapons right in the living room of their homes full of children. A gun owner who considers a gun as a way to protect their family shouldn't be displaying it like a toy, right near a doll house.
Secure firearms safely
Schools and community leaders should be talking about secure gun storage. It prevents theft and access by children, unauthorized users, and anyone who may pose a danger to themself or others. It saves lives.
Keep your kids safe in other homes
Parents should ask about guns before playdates. I warn my kids all the time never to trust other drivers when walking, biking or driving. Assume drivers are distracted. It's the same with guns, even if you are a gun owner. Don't assume that just because you are a storing your gun properly and never leaving it out of sight (if you're someone who carries) that everyone else is as careful.
I've started sending the following text before my youngest goes to a friend's house, and I've yet to lose a friend over it. But I have been surprised by who admits to owning guns: "Quick question that I ask everyone now that so many people are carrying. If you have guns, are they stored in a safe with bullets in a separate safe? And the kids have no access to the codes?"
Control what happens in your private space
When background checks for conceal carry is limited or nonexistent, the onus is on private citizens to ensure we trust the folks carry guns around our community.
Businesses can ask that no guns enter their establishment (be sure you check your state laws to do this correctly, or your request will be null).
Religious leaders can ask congregants to leave weapons at home or ask that anyone carrying has to first let the congregation leadership know. A rabbi, priest or minister is often the best judge of who we can trust.
Social media channels should eliminate posts about private gun sales on their platform.
If you're the host, know who is carrying at your party so that you can determine if you think that's a good idea and ensure that anyone carrying isn't drinking alcohol.
Personally, when you host people for a meal or a party, assume that someone, at some point will come to your house carrying a concealed weapon. In addition to asking people if they have allergies or what time they want to come, I've started requesting that if they carry, please don't bring the gun to our home. Again, I've been surprised by who does carry.
Make data-driven decisions
If you're someone who is considering buying a gun (or carrying) because it would make you feel safer, first consider the data. The idea that the antidote to gun violence is more good guys with guns is a fallacy. It found its most infamous expression after Sandy Hook when NRA's Wayne LaPierre said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Self-defensive gun use is rare. Guns are many times more likely to be used for suicide or homicide, as I explained above. In 2018, for every justifiable homicide with a gun, there were 34 gun homicides, 82 gun suicides, and two unintentional gun deaths.
People successfully defend themselves with guns in less than 1% of crimes in which there is contact between a perpetrator and a victim.
Research indicates that carrying a firearm may increase a victim’s risk of injury when a crime is committed, with one study indicating that people in possession of a gun may be more than four times more likely to be shot in an assault.
States with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of gun death. More guns create more opportunities for injury and death, not fewer.
An FBI analysis of 160 active shooter incidents from 2000–2013 found that active shooter incidents were rarely stopped by armed individuals who were not law enforcement returning fire. In fact, four times as many shootings were stopped by unarmed civilians restraining the shooter.
No credible statistical evidence exists to show that permissive concealed carry laws reduce crime. Instead, the evidence suggests that laws that make it easier for more people to carry guns in public may actually increase the frequency of some types of violent crime, including gun homicides.
Finally, while national numbers on police marksmanship are not readily available, data from major metropolitan police departments show that cops hit their target less than half the time (LAPD is 48%, but others are lower). If highly trained cops miss their target at least half the time, what's the likelihood that someone with six hours of concealed carry license training is ready to save anyone?
The misconception that more guns are the answer to gun violence can lead to deadly, or dangerous encounters. After Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson in 2011, bystanders acted quickly to disarm the shooter when he paused to reload. A wounded man grabbed the gun, while others held down the shooter. Another man who’d heard the shots came running out of a nearby Walgreens with his own gun drawn and almost shot the survivor who had helped to disarm the shooter. Much of the stats and research source listed above come from Gifford's website on gun safety advocacy.
Gun violence, whether related to white supremacy, gang violence, domestic abuse, suicide or accidental is a uniquely American public health crisis. While our Congress finally looks to be making some small, but significant progress, we have a lot of work to do as individuals in our communities.
It takes a village to raise kids. It takes a village to protect them too.