One of the stories from the Newtown massacre that most marked me was of Richard and Krista Rekos, parents of 6-year-old victim Jessica. After the police officers told them their little girl was dead, they went home and climbed into her bed. That image haunts me: a ravaged mother and father, buried in the smell of a child who is never coming home.
I cannot remain passive in the face of that tragedy, and that of the 30,000 other lives lost to gun violence each year. Yet that is what 46 senators chose to do last week. They voted against 90 percent of the American people when they killed a measure that would have expanded background checks on gun sales. Confronted with a moment that required political courage, these senators ducked their heads and cowered before the National Rifle Association.
I refuse to be dissuaded by their cowardice. We are not helpless in this fight to keep our families safe, and neither are our governments.
At the end of the day, the gun industry is a business. Businesses have customers. And many of the gun industry’s biggest buyers are our federal, state and local governments, as a result of the enormous purchases of firearms made for law enforcement agencies and the military.
Elected officials, from President Barack Obama down to city commissioners, could stem the tide of violence today, if they were to take one simple step: Refuse to buy guns from manufacturers and distributors who will not implement basic, common-sense practices to keep guns out of criminal hands. Period.
Federally licensed gun dealers — the ones who are already required to do background checks — are one of the largest sources of illegally trafficked guns. A 2000 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) report showed that of 84,000 guns that landed in traffickers’ hands, more than half passed through a federally licensed dealer. A gun’s road from legal to illegal is often very short: a friend, brother or girlfriend of a criminal walks into a store, buys a weapon and passes it along. In many states, it’s easier than getting a package of cold medicine.
The methods that can help prevent these “straw” purchases are deceptively simple. Video-tape all transactions. Ban cell phone calls from inside the store. Train sales staff on how to recognize an illicit purchase. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing showed that manufacturers who implement safeguards such as these see a significantly lower percentage of their guns used in violent crimes. Manufacturers could require distributors to use these tactics, and distributors could require the same of their dealers.
The NRA and other “gun rights” organizations know this, yet they fight every common-sense measure — punishing gun manufacturers when they break ranks and implement measures to protect the public.
Take Smith & Wesson. In 2000, as the manufacturer faced a slew of potentially disastrous gun violence lawsuits from county and city governments, company executives agreed to a deal with the Clinton administration on an array of voluntary gun-safety measures. The deal included a requirement that the manufacturer would cut off dealers with a disproportionate number of guns that ended up used in crimes. The NRA leadership sent out a missive saying that the gun company had “run up the white flag of surrender” and helped provoke a consumer boycott that brought the company to its knees. “I think you could say that the industry learned a lesson,” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, told Businessweek.
We need to teach them a different lesson.
The NRA and other “gun rights” groups have created an America where the gun industry is absolved of all responsibility from its pursuit of profit at the expense of life. I don’t want my tax dollars financing this bloody churn any more.
There are events in each of our lives that define us, when something snaps inside and we say, “Enough.” Newtown was one of those moments for me. And so tonight, I’ll slip my sleepy little boys into bed and think about tiny Jessica and her rosy smile. Tomorrow, I’ll be making calls and heading to the office of every police chief and mayor I can find.
If I don’t do something, I fear my faith in the very nature of our democracy will falter. I can’t live in an America where the slaughter of little boys and girls means nothing.
I know I’m not alone. Join me. Stand up. Make them listen.
Casey Woods is a former reporter for The Miami Herald.