Sunday, April 22, 2007

My heart goes out to the victims of the horrific attack at Virginia Tech. No one deserved to die at the hands of that mentally unstable young man. The truth is that gun violence is rampant in our country and culture. And it’s time our leaders stop ducking the issue and take a moral stand for what is right and what can save lives at the same time.

Before the anti-gun-control pundits start spouting boilerplate rhetoric, know this: I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which allows us to own a firearm, but I also am a strong supporter of common-sense gun control laws that keep firearms out of the hands of minors, criminals, undocumented workers and mentally unstable persons.

And yet I tire of seeing politicians skirt the issue for fear of being targeted by the all-powerful gun lobby, which pours millions of dollars into the coffers of those who sing and dance to their tune of “gun rights without responsible background checks and a waiting period.” Each year, more than 30,000 Americans lose their lives to gun violence. It also costs our nation more than $100 billion in health-care expenses to treat the wounded. And 80 percent of the money comes from taxpayers. We pay dearly for our silence.

Like many of the victims at Virginia Tech, this tragedy strikes the America’s young. Many of the victims of gun violence are our children. In 2004, nearly eight children and teenagers (ages 19 and under) were murdered with guns daily. That same year, death by homicide was the second-leading cause of injury or death for men and women ages 10 to 24, and it was the leading cause of death for black males 15 to 34 years old. What will it take for Congress to act? And why won’t our leaders speak up?

The average cost of one gun crime can run as high as $1.7 million, including medical treatment and the prosecution and imprisonment of the perpetrator. Can you imagine if we spent this money educating children and investing in their future — our future?

It’s time for Congress to find some common ground and look into some bills already lurking under the political radar. In February, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, whose son was shot in the head and her husband killed in a Long Island Rail Road shooting, re-introduced the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act of 2007, which would require states to automate criminal history and inform the FBI of anyone barred from having a gun.

During the 107th Congress, the House of Representatives unanimously passed this legislation to improve the NICS, but as usual, the Senate hemmed, hawed and left town before acting. Mrs. McCarthy’s office, in a telephone call, told me they named her bill the “Our Lady of Peace Act” after Lynbrook, N.Y., church where a disturbed “gunman with a history of mental health problems — which went unaccounted during a routine background check — fatally shot the Rev. Larry Penzes and Eileen Tosner” during Mass.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, California Democrat, who was appointed mayor of San Francisco following the shooting death of former Mayor George Moscone and City Councilman Harvey Milk, has also stepped up to extend the 1994 federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the manufacture and importation of 19 military-style assault weapons. Mrs. Feinstein, who authored the legislation, said in a statement after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that “it is my deep belief that shootings like these are enabled by the unparalleled ease with which people procure weapons in this country.”

It’s just too easy to buy a gun in some states. Twenty-five states have automated less than 60 percent of their felony convictions into the NICS system. In these states, the felons not entered won’t turn up on the NICS system and would be able to purchase guns with no questions asked. In 13 states, domestic violence restraining orders are not accessible through NICS. Common sense would dictate you don’t sell a gun to someone who has been served with a restraining order.

Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter at Virginia Tech, was found mentally ill by a judge in 2005. This would have barred Cho from purchasing a weapon under the 1968 Gun Control Act. By law, his record was required to be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database. However, the gun shop owner put him through a federal and state background check and he passed.

In Virginia, like some other states, Cho was legally able to purchase the gun because his mental health record never made it into the system, so the background check was incomplete. He should have been flagged, but because the state did not fully import their records, he was able to get a gun.

Unfortunately, Virginia is not alone. The background check system is incomplete and Congress should at least step up to the plate and provide the resources to help states update their records.

Now is not the time to point fingers, but to act. Let’s hope Congress summons the will to provide law enforcement agencies with the tools to help curb gun violence.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and Al Gore’s former campaign manager.

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