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Now is the time for sensible gun laws

We will not be safe until we solve the problem of virtually unfettered access to guns. This will require a comprehensive package of legislation.

By DANA KELLERMAN April 26, 2023, 12:55 pm 0

Items left outside the Tree of Life building in 2018. (Photo by Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg)

The trial of the perpetrator of the Oct. 27, 2018, gun massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue where Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations prayed began on Monday. Armed with an assault weapon and motivated by antisemitic hatred, he killed 11 Jewish worshipers and injured six of our neighbors, including four first responders. He changed the lives of nine families and three congregations irrevocably. In response, our community has fortified its communal spaces with armed guards and technology. Communities across the nation have turned their schools into armed fortresses. Despite these efforts people are still murdered in Walmarts and banks, at nightclubs, movie theaters, nail salons, outdoor concerts and gyms. And they still die in schools — in Uvalde and St. Louis, Charlottesville and Nashville. According to the Gun Violence Archive, since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, there have been 134 gun mass murders where four or more people have been killed. There have been 2523 mass shootings where four or more people have been either shot or killed; more than one mass shooting for every single day that has elapsed. And mass shootings comprise only a tiny percentage of gun deaths. We will not be safe until we solve the problem of virtually unfettered access to guns.This will require a comprehensive package of legislation that, while respecting the Second Amendment, also recognizes the right of citizens to be safe from the epidemic of gun violence ravaging our nation.

Americans already agree on this. We know that more guns and weaker gun laws mean more death and shattered lives. Recent polls have shown that overwhelming majorities of us, including Republicans, Democrats and independents, support universal background checks (88% support); red flag laws to temporarily remove weapons from persons judged, through due process, to be a danger to themselves or others (77% support); safe storage laws to prevent unintentional and school shootings (80% support); raising the age to purchase any gun from 18 to 21 (74% support); and mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns to halt the flow of illegal guns into communities. A small majority of Republicans even support a ban on high-capacity magazines.

We know that stricter firearms laws result in less gun violence and fewer gun deaths. States with the strongest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun deaths. Red flag laws decrease intimate partner gun homicides; and there is evidence that universal background checks decrease firearm homicides, according to a Rand study this year. Safe storage laws reduce gun suicides, homicides and assaults and unintentional shootings and firearms injuries among youths.

Only three groups oppose these common-sense solutions: gun manufacturers, the fringe leadership of the NRA, and related “gun rights” groups and legislators. The motivation for gun manufacturers to oppose stricter gun laws is simple: money.

The NRA serves as the lobbying arm of the gun industry. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the NRA began as a non-partisan organization that supported reasonable gun regulations. Since 1971, it has evolved into a hard-line organization with substantial industry funding that opposes virtually all stricter gun laws and supports almost exclusively Republican candidates. The NRA enforces its will through its rating system for politicians (F to A+) and through its twin arms, the NRA Political Victory Fund and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. By supporting primary challengers to Republican legislators who are not “pro-gun” enough, the NRA has made opposing any sort of gun regulation part of the Republican orthodoxy.

In our Congress and state Senate, legislators are leveraging their positions as committee chairs and in leadership to subvert the will of their constituents by refusing to advance lifesaving legislation. Recently retired legislators of both parties have told me that this is because legislators don’t want to lose their next election. Legislators of both parties know that most voters support better gun laws. Many of them believe that gun laws would work. But Republican legislators also know they will face a primary challenge from a well-funded, NRA- backed opponent if they don’t toe the party line.

The current situation is unacceptable. We should not have to live like this and we certainly shouldn’t have to die like this so that politicians can keep their jobs. Congressional Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Pennsylvania Senate Pro Tempore Kim Ward, and Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker must hear our voices. If they do not, the carnage will continue until we, the survivors, vote them out. PJC

Dana Kellerman is policy director of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence and a member of Congregation Dor Hadash.


Dana Kellerman: The day Pittsburgh joined Parkland and Uvalde on that list

DANA KELLERMAN Special to the Post Gazette APR 27, 2023 12:00 AM

This week, the process of selecting a jury begins for the man who goes on trial for the October 27, 2018 antisemitic gun massacre at my synagogue. On that day, Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill joined the list. That list. The one which includes Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Sebring, Virginia Beach, El Paso, Dayton, Odessa-Midland, Boulder, San Jose, Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park, Nashville, and Louisville. Cities now known more for their mass shootings than their recreational attractions, industry, schools, or sports teams. Here in Pittsburgh, eleven people were murdered, six injured, and nine families will never be the same. Three congregations were stricken and an entire community changed forever. And yet, mass shootings are just the tip of a bloody iceberg. In 2022, 44,343 Americans died in gun homicides (18,624), suicides (24,090), and unintentional shootings (1629), up from 43,675 in 2020. Gun homicide and suicide rates rose by 8.3% from 2020 to 2021, which was already up 35% from 2019, according to CDC data. Guns are now the biggest killer of children in this country, 1682 died in 2022 alone. The percentage of homicides and suicides committed with firearms also rose. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of gun homicides rose 45% while the number of non-gun homicides rose only 6%. The government does not track firearm purchases so we do not know exactly how many guns were sold, but it should be clear that guns are driving the increase in homicides. We don’t have precise information on gun ownership in the U.S. because most guns are unregistered and the list of registered guns published annually by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms does not include ordinary handguns or AR-15s. We do know that between 2019 and 2021 the number of firearms background checks, an estimate of firearms sales, rose 37%. During this time gun homicides and suicides rose over 35%.

In 2022, 129 people in Allegheny County died in shootings, 32 of them were under the age of 20. In a single week last October, 16 people were shot in the City of Pittsburgh, at least one every single day. Three died. Six people at the Destiny of Faith Church were shot at a funeral for a person who was themself shot to death. The toll that gun homicide and suicide takes on our country is stark. The distribution of this violence may be surprising to some. Of the five states with the highest per capita rate of gun deaths, every single one (Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and West Virginia) is a deeply conservative state with lax gun laws.

Of the eight states with the next highest rates, seven are solidly conservative and all have extremely lax gun laws. Of the five states with the lowest rate of gun deaths (Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island), all are solidly liberal states with strong gun laws. Eighteen states rank lower than Pennsylvania for gun deaths. Gun deaths are significantly lower in states with strong gun laws. This is true despite the preponderance of large cities in these states. Additional factors in these same states likely play a role, including economic policies that address joblessness, and social policies that address poverty, domestic violence, and mental health (including suicide prevention). We should pursue these policies and stronger gun laws. Americans of both political parties broadly support common sense gun policies, including universal firearms background checks, red flag laws, raising the age to purchase a weapon to 21, safe storage laws to prevent children from accessing guns, and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

While support for better gun laws is a non-partisan issue among voters, it has become deeply partisan among legislators. Few to no Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature or in Congress support strengthening gun laws while most Democratic legislators do. This will not change until all of us demand stronger gun laws from our elected representatives. It will not change until we punish those legislators who either vote against or refuse to consider stronger laws by voting them out. You cannot claim to care about gun violence and support legislators who do not. Too many people right here at home are dying every single day.

Dana Kellerman is the policy director for Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence and a member of Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations attacked on October 27, 2018. First Published April 27, 2023, 12:00am


Updated: Apr 27

Squirrel Hill Stands wrote this letter which was published in last night's Tribune-Review

DANA KELLERMAN | Sunday, April 23, 2023 7:00 p.m.

SHANE DUNLAP | TRIBUNE-REVIEW This week, the trial begins for the man accused of shooting and killing 11 people at my Pittsburgh synagogue 4½ years ago. Reports say he was motivated by antisemitism, white supremacist ideology and hatred for immigrants, but what made the attack deadly was the guns. On April 13 of this year, an 84-year-old man shot Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black teen, in the head because he rang his doorbell. The man was motivated by racism and fear, but what changed Ralph Yarl and his family’s lives forever was the gun. On April 15, a man shot and killed 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis for mistakenly driving up his driveway. It appears that the homeowner just didn’t like strangers. And on April 18, two high school cheerleaders were shot, one critically, after trying to get into the wrong car after a late-night practice. We don’t yet know the motive, but the difference between this being an amusing anecdote and a life-changing event was the gun. I have mistakenly knocked on a stranger’s door. I have answered the door for a stranger asking for directions. I have mistakenly driven up the wrong driveway. Strangers turn around in my driveway all the time. I have tried to open the door of a car that looked like mine, but wasn’t, even once when that car was occupied. I have had someone mistakenly try to open my car door because he mistook it for his own car . And never did it occur to me that I might be shot for these actions, or even worse, that I might shoot someone else. The common denominator is the guns. Gun ownership is a significant predictor of higher gun homicide rates. In an American Journal of Public Health study, for each percentage point increase in gun ownership, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9%. Having a gun in the home, regardless of storage practice, type of gun or number of firearms, was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide. Suicide by firearm (firearm suicide is responsible for almost two-thirds of all gun deaths) is highest in states with the fewest gun laws (10.8 per 100,000), lower in states with moderate gun laws (8.4 per 100,000), and the lowest in states with the most gun laws (4.9 per 100,000). Owning a handgun is associated with a dramatically elevated risk of suicide (8 fold for men, 35 fold for women) , according to a study at Stanford University that followed 26 million California residents over a 12-year period. Stricter gun laws decrease gun deaths and injuries. Strong gun laws are associated with lower gun homicide and suicide rates and repeal of such laws results in increased shootings. The 14 states that have the weakest gun laws have nearly three times as many gun deaths as the eight states with the strongest laws, 21 deaths/100,000 population versus 8.1/100,00. The repeal of Missouri’s permit to purchase law resulted in an increase in annual firearm homicides rates of 23% but was unrelated to changes in non-firearm homicide rates. In an analysis of 2,583 patients hospitalized for firearm-related injuries across 44 states, states without strict firearms laws have higher firearm related injury and mortality rates compared to strict firearm law states. We don’t already have strong gun laws largely because of the NRA and related “gun rights” organizations. The NRA blocks virtually all gun legislation because the NRA is supported by gun manufacturers, and gun manufacturers sell guns. The NRA donates to legislators (and their PACs) who earn their A rating. They recruit and support challengers to any Republican legislator who dares oppose them, making it costly for Republican legislators to support stronger gun laws. And they engage during primary elections when fringe gun rights voters have more power. Despite their 501(c)(4) tax status, the NRA only supports Republicans. The laws we need include universal background checks; red flag laws to, temporarily and with due process, remove firearms from people at risk of harming themselves or others; safe storage laws to prevent gun suicides, school shootings and unintentional shootings; mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns to prevent trafficked guns from making their way into the hands of those not permitted to own firearms; and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to limit the number of casualties. We won’t get those laws until the majority of us decide to vote only for the candidate supporting stronger gun laws. It really is that simple. Dana Kellerman is policy director of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence and a member of Congregation Dor Hadash.

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