When I tell people about belonging to a “gun group,” they do a nifty little double-take. “Gun group” is my shorthand for Gun Responsibility Advocates (GRA), a remarkable collection of committed individuals I feel privileged to have met through our quixotic effort to create a dialogue locally about gun violence.
Not all gun rights advocates are extremists, but many are, and they’re adept at intimidating our elected representatives and keeping them from acting in the public interest. But gun defenders are not the majority, not by a long shot (so to speak). In fact, their influence is out of proportion to their numbers.
We know this because last November, GRA put a non-binding referendum on the ballot, and by a margin of 93% to 7%, Oak Park voters approved a call for federal legislation establishing a single, consistent-across-all-states, universal background check system for all gun sales, closing the loopholes that make current gun regulation laws a Swiss cheese of inefficiency and making guns far too easy to access by criminals, children and people suffering from mental illness.
Gun rights advocates will tell you, “Gun control doesn’t work.” Of course it doesn’t work. The current patchwork system is designed to fail. But if they tell you a single, nationwide background check system doesn’t work, they’re bluffing because it’s never been tried.
In Oak Park, we know that roughly 93 percent favor giving it a try. That’s what I call a groundswell. If you think “that’s just liberal Oak Park,” a very similar non-binding referendum last November, covering all of Cook County, garnered over 80% approval. Cook County comprises a lot of communities that are nowhere near as liberal as Oak Park. And that referendum included a ban on assault weapons (ours didn’t because Oak Park already has one).
The Cook County numbers, by the way, reflect national polling, which indicates more than 80% of Americans support background checks and other forms of common-sense gun regulation. Even the Supreme Court, in overturning our handgun ban, supported the right of communities to regulate gun ownership and possession.
Our group believes that responsibilities are inseparable from rights. We contend that gun owners have a moral obligation to their country, which they claim to feel patriotic about, to support the minor inconvenience of background checks for every gun sale and every gun purchase nationwide. That’s just one example of what accepting responsibility means.
A national background check system would be a significant step toward creating a safer society. Yet the small minority who advocate gun rights with virtually no responsibility continue to impose their will on the rest of us, making our society demonstrably less safe.
How small is that minority? It really doesn’t matter because 100 percent of non-criminal Americans want to create a safer society for themselves and their loved ones. That is our common ground. Now we just have to agree on what steps to take to reduce gun violence.
The gun rights crowd argues that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens will make society safer, believing that an armed populace will make criminals think twice about committing crimes. They also favor a militarized, hyper-vigilant police presence in inner-city neighborhoods.
But Ferguson, Baltimore and myriad mass shooting incidents have shown that such notions are tragically wrong. And as for children being killed by gun accidents at home, or suicides, or mentally ill individuals committing mass murder in first-grade classrooms or movie theaters, gun rights extremists dismiss such instances as “statistically insignificant.”
Our group learned firsthand — after 11 months of trying — that gun defenders will never be open to dialogue as long as they hold tight to the NRA-perpetuated myth that “All you want to do is take away our guns.”
We don’t want to take away the estimated 300 million guns in this country (even if we could, a laughable notion). What we want is for gun owners to accept more responsibility for their gun rights and join us in creating a safer society.
But mired in their extremism, that isn’t likely. So the rest of us need to start taking intentional steps in that direction, in spite of any and all resistance. It is a moral imperative because our loved ones are endangered by easy access to guns.
To that end, we have organized a panel discussion for next Thursday, June 18 at 7 p.m. in the Oak Park Public Library Veterans Room.
Six panelists will speak about gun violence from a variety of angles: Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley on law enforcement, former village attorney Ray Heise on the law, retired County Hospital trauma surgeon John Barrett on public health, 8th District state Rep. La Shawn Ford on legislation, Martha Rosenberg of the National Gun Victims Action Council on economic leverage against corporations and gun dealers, and firsthand experience from the inner-city by spoken word poet Leslie Hunter.
Audience members will be invited to submit questions, comments and ideas on index cards, which will be read and discussed.
It’s an opportunity for those concerned about gun violence to network and identify specific pathways to a safer society.
We are just one small part of an expanding groundswell nationwide that we believe will someday change attitudes, legislation, and finally, behavior.
We invite you to the library next Thursday, June 18 at 7 p.m.
To help us build momentum.