Gabby Giffords On How Covid-19 ‘Has Laid Bare’ The Severity of Gun Violence

Gabby Giffords

The former Arizona congresswoman warned we must do better when it comes to addressing the rise in shootings across the U.S.

The U.S. has seen a dramatic rise in shootings in major cities across the country, including in New York City and Chicago. New York City alone has seen more than 500 shootings so far — outpacing this time last year when the city saw 365 incidences. Though the city has seen a drop in overall crime, Chicago saw a 75 percent increase in gun violence, with 424 shootings in June 2020 compared to 242 in June 2019.

This uptick has been particularly harmful to communities of color, which have been disproportionally affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest following George Floyd’s death in police custody in May. Every single one of the 100 victims shot in July was a minority, and in Chicago, Black neighborhoods have seen a 76 percent spike in shootings since the same time last year.

Gabby Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman-turned-gun-control advocate, said this increase in gun violence must be addressed, along with the effects of police brutality against people of color. With these communities feeling especially vulnerable, she maintained that the first step in solving this problem is investing in new policing models and public safety initiatives, such as community-based violence programs.

As a shooting survivor, Giffords knows first-hand the impact of gun violence — she was shot in the head at a constituent event in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The House-passed Bipartisan Background Check Act is titled H.R. 8, in honor of her representation of Arizona’s 8th District.

Wake-Up Call: How has rising gun violence and the reckoning over police brutality affected the future of policing?

Gabby Giffords: We have to protect communities in ways that preserve the sanctity of human life — not destroy it. When acts of police brutality cause communities to lose trust in the police officers who are supposed to serve and protect them, gun violence goes up. If we live in a country where many people don’t feel safe because of their zip code or the color of their skin, then none of us are truly safe. We can’t settle for that version of America. We have to build a better one.

The virus has stymied efforts to curb gun violence. What are some ways to address this growing issue?

Covid-19 has laid bare just how severe our gun violence problem is. It took the literal shutdown of schools to stop school shootings from happening. Still, shootings in many of our cities continue to rise, despite lockdowns. We must do better. Fortunately, a number of states are taking action: Virginia’s lifesaving new gun laws recently went into effect. Rhode Island passed important ghost gun legislation. Courageous lawmakers in these and other states are recognizing and addressing the dangerous intersections of coronavirus and gun violence, which our team has written about extensively.

Several studies have shown that Black communities are disproportionately hurt by gun violence. How do guns factor into racial disparities?

Systemic racism affects Black Americans in so many ways, including the recent horrific spate of high-profile killings. These tragedies need to be met with action. We need to pass gun safety laws that will close dangerous loopholes in our federal laws. We need to fund community violence programs in our cities. And we need to address the many inequities in our legal and prison systems, which means rooting out the systemic racism that makes living in this country a different experience for Black Americans than it is for white Americans.

The pandemic has triggered an uptick in gun sales, particularly among first-time buyers. What are some of the basic rules about responsible gun ownership?

I’m a gun owner. Like many other reasonable gun owners across the country, I know that rights come with responsibilities, like passing a background check and safely storing your firearm. My heart breaks every time I read about a child unintentionally shot with an improperly stored gun. First-time gun buyers need to understand the responsibility they’re taking on when they purchase a deadly weapon and enroll in firearm safety courses. Most importantly, people should know that owning a gun does not automatically make you safer — in fact, research shows the opposite.

Your team spends a lot of time advocating for community-based violence prevention programs and alternatives to over-policing. Can you tell us more about these programs and how they work?

There are a few different models of community-violence intervention programs, which usually work by engaging the small percentage of a city’s population at the highest risk of violence. These programs, which aim to stop individuals before they pick up a gun, have been proven to drastically reduce violence in a short amount of time. Gun violence costs the American economy $229 billion a year. The investment required to keep these programs running is minimal compared to the lives they save and the tremendous cost savings they generate. Cash-strapped states facing difficult decisions must continue funding these vital programs. We can’t abandon the courageous street outreach workers who are on the front lines of two crises: COVID-19 and gun violence.

Though a vast majority of Americans have supported requiring background checks on all gun purchases, there are still loopholes in federal gun laws that exempt unlicensed sellers from having to perform background checks before selling firearms. What are some challenges to closing these loopholes other than lobbyist groups like the NRA?

Candidates are running and winning on gun safety at the local, state, and federal levels. But unfortunately, too many politicians still take their marching orders from the NRA. Since the Bipartisan Background Checks Act passed in the House in February 2019, Mitch McConnell has refused to even allow a vote in the Senate. I’ve always loved a challenge, and this is a fight we will win. This year we can elect a gun safety majority in the Senate, preserve our majority in the House, and get my friend Joe Biden into the White House. In the coming weeks, we’re hosting a series of virtual events in states with key Senate races. I hope you’ll join me at some of these events!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium