On March 29, 1991, The New York Times published an op-ed piece penned by former President Ronald Reagan. He was no longer in the Oval Office, but felt it imperative to weigh in on a very important piece of legislation.
He wrote in part: “Anniversary is a word we usually associate with happy events that we like to remember: birthdays, weddings, the first job. March 30, however, marks an anniversary I would just as soon forget, but cannot. It was on that day 10 years ago that a deranged young man standing among reporters and photographers shot a policeman, a Secret Service agent, my press secretary and me on a Washington sidewalk. I was lucky. … Jim Brady, my press secretary, who was standing next to me, wasn’t as lucky.”
After recounting the fate of those who were shot that day, President Reagan zeroed in on his motivation for writing the opinion piece. He observed: “This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now — the Brady Bill — had been law back in 1981. Named for Jim Brady, this legislation would establish a national seven-day waiting period before a handgun purchaser could take delivery. … Critics claim that ‘waiting period’ legislation in the states that have it doesn’t work, that criminals just go to nearby states that lack such laws to buy their weapons. True enough, and all the more reason to have a federal law that fills the gaps. … The effect would be a uniform standard across the country.”
The Brady Bill was signed into law on Nov. 30, 1993. Its passage was due in part to the influence and support of such individuals as President Reagan. Someone who, throughout his political career, showed himself to be a strong gun rights advocate also understood there are times one must and should act in the whole public’s interest and for the benefit and safety of all.
Three years later, President Reagan, along with former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, sent a letter to the full U.S. House of Representatives urging them to vote in favor of legislation that included a 10-year ban on manufacturing certain assault weapons, such as the AR-15, for private citizens.
Their letter included the following: “While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”
Speaking of then President Bill Clinton and the three former presidents Reagan, Carter and Ford, one political commentator at the time noted, “Together, the four make a formidable lobby, stretching across a broad ideological spectrum and giving political cover to wavering House members. As pressures intensified … several lawmakers who had never voted against the National Rifle Association, the leading opponent of the ban, announced that they would support the measure.”
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly referred to as the federal Assault Weapons Ban, became law in September 1994. Although it was enacted with a 10-year sunset provision, and no political will would be present in 2004 to ensure its renewal, the law nevertheless served as a powerful example of how leaders from diverse ideological backgrounds could come together and act on the public’s behalf.
As implied in the act’s name, public safety, along with public health, were of top concern to these leaders. They could come together around the idea that gun violence had become a pressing public safety and public health issue.
In 2018, gun violence is indeed an acute public safety and public health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s latest figures, there were more than 11,000 gun-related homicides in 2016 and around 22,000 gun-related suicides. Such staggering numbers set the United States apart from any other developed country. No other advanced nation comes close.
When it comes to mass shootings (excluding the shooter, when at least four people are either injured or killed in a shooting incident) there has been a steady and tragic upward trajectory. In 2013, 961 people were injured in mass shootings and 288 killed. Each year the numbers have grown. In 2017, there were 1,981 injured and 590 killed, respectively, in mass shootings. Truly, gun violence is a public health and public safety emergency in America.
The nation experiences a flu epidemic, or the spread of some other viral disease such as West Nile or Ebola, and our leaders are quick to declare a public health crisis and spring into action, which they should. Yet what is causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year — gun violence — seems to afflict our leaders with paralysis and render them incapable of mounting any type of effective response.
Incredibly, Congress refuses to even authorize any money to simply study the problem of gun violence. Writing in The Atlantic, Sarah Zang noted, “After a deadly shooting, the debate always, it seems, breaks down like this: One side argues for gun control, and the other argues there is no research proving those measures work. There is, in fact, little research into gun violence at all — especially compared to other causes of death in the United States.” More than 30,000 Americans a year are dying from gun violence and the government doesn’t want to know why or what to do about it.
Gun violence is a complex issue that will require well thought-out solutions. However, if a problem isn’t looked at honestly and thoroughly, it’s difficult to devise a wise and effective way forward.
President Reagan and other past leaders have set the example when it comes to critical concerns about public safety and public health: Leaders must lead.