It’s a testament to star power. Last week Amy Schumer sat down with Jon Stewart during his final week as host of the “The Daily Show” to talk sex, vacation-hopping with JLaw, her summer smash hit “Trainwreck” – and gun-control. It was a deviation from her usual bawdy humor and twitter-worthy sex statements but it garnered almost the same level of national media attention. That same day she joined relative and Senator Chuck Schumer (NY-D) at a press conference calling for stricter gun-control laws.
This isn’t the first time a Hollywood darling has advocated for common sense gun laws. Following the Newton, Connecticut shooting on December 14, 2012, Hollywood stars such as Jeremy Renner, Will Ferrell, Beyoncé, Sarah Silverman, Olivia Mum, Jennifer Aniston, Ellen DeGeneres, Peter Dinklage, and Chris Rock banded together and released a powerful video advocating for stronger national gun laws. And yet, in spite of all this star power and rising gun-related deaths, gun-control has become one of the toughest partisan issues to address in today’s U.S. Congress.
Despite the fact that 2015 has been one of the deadliest years to date regarding mass shootings (207 by July 31, 2015 where a “mass shooting” is defined as three or more people shot and killed in one incident), even the faintest whisper of gun-control is met with hostility and outright condemnations as anti-American by the GOP and far right. The Republican-led Congress and pro-gun industry deflects advocate criticisms, often ignoring the data, and claiming that shootings such as Newton, Aurora, Tucson, and Lafayette are isolated incidents in which the shooter suffers from some type of mental health disorder and thus is an outlier and not representative of the broader issue of increased gun sales and the relative ease of gun access in the U.S.
In 1994 U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (Federal Assault Weapons Ban) into law. The law prohibited the manufacture, transfer, and possession of semiautomatic firearms for civilian use that fell under the definition of an “assault weapons” as well as large capacity magazines. It was a comprehensive law that effectively addressed the rising rate of gun deaths in the U.S. by restricting sales of guns and increasing accountability at the individual, state, and federal levels. In September 2004 President George W. Bush failed to reenact the law, letting it expire. What has followed has been an unprecedented increase in the manufacturing and purchase of military-grade weapons with very little oversight.
UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, which researches the causes and prevention of serious violence, specifically firearm violence, conducted a study (lead author, Professor Garen Wintemute) titled “Inside Gun Shows: What Goes on When Everybody Thinks Nobody’s Watching” that provided a comprehensive look at gun shows and gun loopholes between 2005 and 2008. The findings of the report were based on direct observation at 78 gun shows in 19 states and they were eye-opening:
- illegal straw purchases, whereby a surrogate buys from a licensed retailer on behalf of another
- anonymous, undocumented private-party gun sales
- widespread availability of assault weapons, .50-caliber rifles and the parts needed to make untraceable guns
- links between gun shows and the neo-Confederacy movement and neo-Nazism
According to the report, gun shows are the leading source “of guns used in criminal violence in Northern California, the United States, Mexico and Canada” and “illegal transactions were often conducted entirely out in the open.” Further, Professor Wintemute points to the fact that undocumented private party gun sales account for nearly 40% of gun sales in the U.S. When someone buys from a licensed dealer than all federal requirements must be met, such as age restrictions and background checks. However, when buying from an individual or “private seller”, then requirements are determined by state.
Only seven states require background checks for all purchases at gun shows:
- New York
- Rhode Island
And just four require background checks for handgun purchases only:
- New Jersey
Such a piecemeal approach is not working. There needs to be a uniform set of federal laws that cover both licensed sellers and private sales and gifting. This should include comprehensive background checks for ALL firearm sales, broadening the denial criteria for purchase and possession, and limits to or outright bans of high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.
Senator Schumer plans to introduce a package of gun-control measures that include legislation to implement a national background check system and penalty system for states that fail to comply. A similar effort was put forth by Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA-D) in 2013 with the Assaults Weapon Ban of 2013. It was voted down 40 to 60 in the Senate, mostly along party lines. There is a slim chance Senator Schumer’s legislation will make it past that Republican-controlled Senate, let alone the House.
Thankfully, while national laws have been slow to form, action is being taken at the local and state levels. The Los Angeles City Council recently delivered a unanimous vote in favor of legislation that bans the possession of high-capacity gun magazines in the wake of public mass shootings across the country. The Los Angeles vote follows similar laws passed in San Francisco and Sunnyvale, California as well as a Colorado state law banning magazines that hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition. So far legal challenges that have been brought against these laws have failed providing gun-control advocates with a reason to hope that other major cities and states will be emboldened to take on similar measures.