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As the nation reels from the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, it is worth noting the utter failure of Congress to pass legislation aimed at curbing gun violence.
Congress has not passed a gun-control measure in more than two decades. Repeated attempts to reinstate the 1994 ban on assault weapons, which was part of a crime prevention bill, have failed because gun control is considered a “third rail issue.”
National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre has compared gun control proposals in Congress to “stopping a freight train with a piece of Kleenex.”
But the juggernaut may be in jeopardy, thanks to the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, a new organization that includes members from every military branch and rank. Among them are top commanders like Retired Army General Stanley A. McChrystal and Retired Marine Brigadier General Stephen Cheney.
“Our communities should not feel like war zones,” McChrystal, the former commander in Afghanistan, wrote in a New York Times op/ed on June 16. “From 2001 to 2010, 119,246 Americans were murdered with guns, eighteen times all American combat deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
McChrystal proposed that leaders “begin ending the carnage by doing more to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted to handle them responsibly. We cannot prevent every dangerous person from getting a gun, and we cannot prevent every gun tragedy. But wouldn’t preventing many of them be worth it? I believe it would.”
Cheney agreed. “Our laws don’t support responsible gun laws, and far too often guns fall into the hands of dangerous, irresponsible people,” he said in a statement. “We want to keep dangerous people from having easy access to guns: felons, domestic abusers, and even known terrorists can buy guns here without something as simple as a criminal background check.”
The coalition, whose members also include retired generals Wesley Clark and David Petraeus, will focus on several goals:
- Urging elected leaders to close loopholes in background check laws “that let felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill buy guns.”
- Strengthening existing laws and improving resources and training to prevent gun tragedies.
- Partnering with other veterans groups on suicide prevention and mental health.
The founding of Veterans Coalition for Common Sense last month comes at a critical juncture in the quest for federal legislation.
Longtime advocacy organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence are up against the clock because President Barack Obama, a staunch supporter of expanded background checks, will leave office in January.
No matter who wins the presidency, the NRA is certain to retain a tight grip on Congress. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending, reports that in 2014 and 2015, the NRA, Gun Owners of America and other pro-gun groups spent $23.4 million compared to $3.6 million by groups committed to passing gun-control measures. These include Everytown for Gun Safety, an umbrella group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, created by former Arizona U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords.
Although the Veterans Coalition cannot compete with the financial prowess of the gun lobby, it represents a tremendous pool of footsoldiers who can overcome the frustrating disconnect between public opinion and nonresponsive lawmakers.
“Public apathy is the greatest weapon of the NRA,” said Stacey Newman, leader of the Progressive Caucus in the Missouri House of Representatives.
“Although surveys show that the public overwhelmingly supports expanded background checks and other commonsense restrictions, public pressure to pass such legislation disappears with the headlines following the last mass shooting. As a result, the NRA’s argument that every gun control measure is an infringement on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms prevails.”
One reason veterans are organizing in support of gun-control measures is that they are often themselves victims of gun violence, mostly self-inflicted.
Two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths are gun suicides. Every day, ten to twelve veterans take their lives, so groups like the 187,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) have made preventing suicide a top priority.
In 2014, a survey of IAVA members found that 47 percent knew at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide, while 40 percent of respondents knew someone who has died of suicide, up three points from the previous year.
In 2015, Congress unanimously passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which established peer support and community outreach programs. To boost accountability of mental health care, the act requires an annual evaluation of the Veterans Administration’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.
Eighty-five percent of suicide attempts with guns are successful. Moreover, the Harvard School of Public Health has found that suicide is often an impulsive act, so gun control groups are looking for ways to keep weapons away from individuals at time of crisis.
A California law took effect in January that allows family and friends to contact law enforcement if they believe an individual could be a threat to himself or others. An officer then asks a judge for a temporary restraining order to require the individual to give up and/or not acquire any guns for twenty-one days.
Modeled after the firearms prohibition in domestic violence restraining orders, the law can be extended for a year after a hearing. Veterans in other states might lobby for passage of similar laws.
Sharon Johnson is the senior correspondent of Women’s eNews, an electronic news service based in New York City.