Seven years ago, as a senior at Virginia Tech, my campus was under siege for nine terrifying minutes. Shots rang through the air, students and teachers watched in fear as the grisly scene unfolded, police forcing their way through chained doors, wounded victims being carried to safety. Thirty-two fellow students and professors were killed that day – the largest mass shooting in American history.
Yet after seven years we continue to witness unfathomable tragedies – Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Newtown, shootings this past weekend that left three dead at the hands of a white supremacist. Can nothing be done to spare the lives of innocents?
Despite what partisan rhetoric would lead us to believe, much can be done to prevent the senseless slaughter of 30 Americans everyday, while ensuring a safer marriage between our right as law-abiding citizens to own firearms, and our right to safety from gun violence in our communities.
First, we must expand background checks to all firearm sales. Since the enactment of the Brady Law, background checks have stopped more than two million prohibited purchasers from obtaining firearms through federally licensed firearms dealers. How many lives did those background checks save?
But up to 40 percent of transactions do not occur through federally licensed dealers, and therefore do not require a background check. A gaping breach used by felons, domestic abusers, and drug addicts alike.
In the absence of federal legislation and political will, many states have taken it upon themselves to expand background checks. But without a national standard, dangerous people can evade stricter background check requirements by crossing state lines, and return to wreak havoc in their own communities.
We must also improve the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) by ensuring that states are providing disqualifying records to the database. Seung Hui Cho passed a background check, despite a 2005 adjudication of mental illness, because the record was never submitted to NICS. Millions of disqualifying mental health records are missing from the system – as of May 2012, 19 states had reported fewer than 100 records, 14 less than ten, and Rhode Island had reported zero.
Just as important, though often overlooked, is the availability of mental healthcare. Our system is woefully inadequate, and inaccessibility to treatment results in jails overcrowded by many who should be in treatment facilities. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system, and more than half of adult inmates suffer from mental illness. A 2010 study found that in 1955, there was one bed in psychiatric wards per 300 Americans. Today there is one bed per 3,000.
We will never stop every violent act committed with a gun, just as we can’t prevent every death caused by drunk drivers with police checkpoints, but we STILL HAVE TO TRY. It is our duty as Americans to make our nation stronger, safer, and to leave a better world for future generations. We owe it to the victims of April 16th, and every life lost by gun violence.
Jamie Haynes, Fairfax Station