Op-Ed: After 25 Years of Inaction on Gun Safety, It’s Time for Senate to Step Up

presidential gun sense forum

The Everytown President on the urgent need for gun safety legislation

In the nine years since his sister, Zina, was shot and killed by her estranged husband, Elvin Daniel has become something he never could have imagined: a practiced public speaker. In 2013, the industrial supplies salesman stood alongside other victims in Washington, DC and told his story. In 2014, he testified before the U.S. Senate. And in 2019, he spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Every time he spoke, Elvin talked about Zina’s love for Disney World, Rick Springfield, and — most of all — her two daughters.

Every time, he summoned up the courage to relive one of the worst moments of his life — the moment he picked up the phone and learned that Zina had been shot.

And every time, he delivered a message to lawmakers that could not be more simple, or more urgent: The American people cannot wait any longer for action on gun safety. 

But up until recently, there was little evidence that Elvin’s message was being heard. It has been nearly 25 years since Congress passed major legislation to address America’s gun violence crisis. Since then, more than 800,000 Americans have been shot and killed — a total that exceeds all U.S. troop combat fatalities since the Civil War.

Thankfully, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the U.S. House of Representatives have been listening to Elvin and the 93 percent of Americans who support background checks on all gun sales. In 2019, they passed H.R. 8, a bill to require background checks on all gun sales. Unfortunately, the bill was blocked from a Senate vote by then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

But the gun sense majority in the House was undeterred, and this Congress reintroduced and passed H.R. 8 with a bipartisan vote on March 11. To understand why we desperately need a new federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales, you need to first understand how easy it is for people with dangerous histories to get around a check under the current law.

As of today, only federally-licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks. But you are only required to obtain a license if you define yourself as “engaged in the business” of dealing guns — a term that is not clearly defined in the law — which means people can essentially choose for themselves whether or not they will be required to conduct background checks. 

This loophole defies common sense. It’s like having two types of security lines at the airport: one for people who are willing to be screened, and one you can stroll right through packing whatever you want.

This loophole is giant. Nearly one quarter of Americans who acquire a gun do so without a background check, because it’s easy to find unlicensed dealers online or at gun shows. For instance, Armslist.com, the nation’s largest online gun market, features more than 1 million online ads every year offering guns for sale that would not legally require a background check to be completed.

And most importantly, this loophole is deadly, as Elvin knows all too well. Zina had taken out a restraining order on her killer, but that didn’t stop him from logging on to Armslist, finding a stranger selling a handgun, and meeting in a McDonald’s parking lot to buy the gun without a background check. The next day, he went to the spa in Brookfield, Wisconsin where Zina worked and murdered her and two other women.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic and its fallout has put even more Americans at risk of being shot. Thanks in part to fear mongering from the National Rifle Association, gun sales have surged — and many of those guns have likely flowed to people who are prohibited from owning them. Between March and September 2020, the average number of posts on Armslist by people looking to purchase a gun in states that do not require background checks on all sales doubled compared to the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the risk factors that lead to gun violence are also on the upswing — with predictable results. As unemployment skyrocketed, so did calls to national suicide hotlines. As shelter-in-place orders went into effect, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline ticked up. As already underserved neighborhoods lost in-person schooling, after school activities, social services, homes, and jobs — and as police-community relations have frayed — we have seen an alarming increase in gun homicides. And as far-right extremists railed against Covid restrictions and the election results, we have seen a rise in armed intimidation, most notably in the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there has never been a better time for Washington to act on gun safety. The White House is now led by two tried and true gun sense champions. Both chambers of Congress are led by gun sense majorities. The biggest roadblock to common-sense gun laws — the NRA — recently filed for bankruptcy. And a clear majority of Americans support background checks on all gun sales, including 89 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of gun owners.

This comes as no surprise to Elvin, who is both a Republican and a gun owner. Here’s how he put it in his 2014 Senate testimony: “Gun owners like me are used to background checks — we do a background check every time we buy a gun at a store or from a dealer. They’re easy, they’re quick, and they prevent guns from being sold to criminals.”

The House has done its part to close the giant loophole in our background check system — now it’s up to the Senate to act, and act quickly. Because when it comes to gun violence, there is no vaccine on the horizon — what we need right now are courageous leaders and common-sense laws. 

John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety.