According to the US Centers for Disease Control, more than 16,000 Americans are murdered each year – and more than 11,000 of them are killed with firearms. The murder rate in the United States is three times as high as that of our next-door neighbor Canada (4.8 murders per 100,000 people versus 1.6 in 2011) – and four to five times as high as the other industrialized first-world nations (1.1 murders per 100,000 people in France and the UK, 0.8 per 100,000 people in Germany and Spain, and 0.4 per 100,000 people in Japan).
Our region isn’t immune to this terrible trend; in fact, we’re above the national average. Between 2008 and 2012, there were nearly 500 murders in Allegheny County – nearly 100 a year. With a population of 1¼ million people, that gives us a murder rate of roughly 8 murders per 100,000 people – and 7 out of 8 murders in Allegheny County are carried out with firearms.
The tragic elementary school shootings in Newtown Connecticut have brought gun safety issues to the forefront of our public debate recently. Once again, our region is no stranger to such horrendous incidents. In fact, over the last 13 years, we’ve had 5 mass shootings in southwestern Pennsylvania – two in 2000, two in 2009, and one in 2012. 16 people died as a result, and 17 people were wounded. At least 4 of the 5 shooters were mentally ill, and at least 3 shooters had multiple weapons. The shooters are all either dead or on Death Row, but many of our friends and neighbors still bear the scars, physical and/or mental, of those attacks.
Such a high number of deaths and injuries isn’t inevitable. I firmly believe that there are policies the federal government can adopt to reduce the number of homicides committed in our country each year, and I am working actively in Congress to have them enacted into law.
For example, I am a cosponsor of the following gun safety bills:
The Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2011, HR141
Currently, the Brady Law requires criminal background checks of people purchasing guns from federally licensed gun dealers, but unlicensed sellers are not required to do background checks. This loophole causes particular problems at gun shows, which give unlicensed sellers a guaranteed venue. In most states convicted felons, domestic violence abusers, and those who are dangerously mentally ill can walk into any gun show and buy weapons from unlicensed sellers, who operate week-to-week with no established place of business, without being stopped, no questions asked. This bill would require a successful background check for any purchaser of a firearm at a gun show.
The Fire Sale Loophole Closing Act, HR 93
The so-called fire-sale loophole currently allows gun dealers whose licenses have been revoked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to convert their entire business inventories of firearms into personal collections and then liquidate the firearms in unregulated fire sales. By converting the business inventory firearms into personal collections, a formerly-licensed dealer can sell the guns without conducting otherwise required, instant FBI background checks that determine whether the purchaser is in a category of individuals prohibited from owning a gun. The Fire Sale Loophole Closing Act would require that any such firearms be transferred only to a licensed gun dealer or a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency.
The Fix Gun Checks Act, HR 137
This bill would encourage greater reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for individuals with mental illness, domestic violence records, and histories of drug abuse, by increasing the penalties for states that fail to adequately turn over records for those who are prohibited from owning a gun. The legislation would also require that all gun sales, including those by private sellers, be subject to a background check, effectively ending the gun show loophole. The bill would also increase penalties for states that do not comply with the NICS’s current requirements. States that do not make available the data needed to assess those who are or may be prohibited from possessing firearms could face reductions in the amount of federal crime-fighting funds they receive. Another major provision of both bills focuses on the mental health issues of those seeking to possess firearms.
The Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act, HR 138
This bill would prohibit the transfer, importation, or possession of high capacity magazines (that can hold dozens of rounds of ammunition) that are manufactured after the bill is enacted. Many of these devices are currently in private hands, and this bill would not ban their possession. Instead, the bill would prohibit the transfer of those devices currently in existence. This would allow individuals who currently own the devices to legally retain possession but works to prevent the spread of the devices by making it illegal to transfer them to other individuals.
The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, HR 437
This bill would re-establish the expired federal ban on assault weapons and, like H.R. 138, would ban ammunition magazines with a greater than 10-round capacity, grandfather existing magazines, and ban any further transfer of those magazines. A national ban on the sale, import, and manufacture of assault weapons was passed in 1994, but it expired in 2004. While I was not in Congress when this law was approved, I subsequently voted to oppose repeal of the Assault Weapons Ban, and I have cosponsored legislation to reinstate it.
I also believe that we need to have a larger discussion in this country about mental health and the types of services that exist for people who need help. Maybe one or more of our local mass murders could have been avoided if John Shick, George Sodini, Richard Baumhammers, Ronald Taylor, and possibly Richard Poplawski had received the necessary help. I agree with President Obama that getting the mental health services one needs ought to be as easy as buying a gun.
The Senate began consideration of gun control legislation in April, but the Senate Leadership pulled the bill when it looked like it was headed for defeat; this maneuver allows the Senate to take up the bill again at a later date. The House Leadership has refused to schedule any gun safety legislation to date. Nevertheless, I will continue to work in the coming months to reduce gun violence in our country.