The White House’s celebration on Monday of the landmark gun control bill that President Joe Biden signed into law recently serves as a reminder of a reality: the two of us should never have met. In fact, we wish we had never gotten to know each other. We live more than 1,000 miles apart, have no familial connection, and do not travel in the same professional circles.
Yet we have become part of an exclusive and tragic circle of gun violence survivors. One story nearly took the life of a healthy 17-year old high-school senior after a football game, and the other was the senseless massacre at Parkland that ended in the murder of 14-year old Jaime Guttenberg. While our tragedies are separated by nearly 25 years, we came to know each other through our fierce devotion to trying to translate our pain into action.
As the Senate prepared to vote on the first piece of gun legislation in three decades in late June, survivors and advocates were invited to bear witness to this long-awaited change. As we waited in one of the committee rooms for debate on the bill to come to an end, the emotion in the room was palpable.
As we waited in one of the committee rooms for debate on the bill to come to an end, the emotion in the room was palpable.
Parents who had lost children, children who had lost parents and those who had been shot themselves — all gathered during a unique moment in time that some of us have been working toward for decades.
At a time when our country seems more divided than ever, who would have ever thought that bipartisan agreement could be reached on gun policy? The fact that Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, invested so much time in his relationship with Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, was critical. Bringing Democrats and Republicans together to address this uniquely American problem ultimately made this deal possible.
This highlights the commonality that exists among us as Americans, and how the core values that bring us together are much greater than that which divides us. This is one of the reasons that so many of us in the gun violence prevention movement have believed that change was not only possible but necessary to save lives. And this is also why President Biden wasted no time and signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law the day after the House passed the Senate bill.
This has made it possible for us to close the “boyfriend loophole”; incentivize states to pass so-called red flag laws, which allow authorities to remove firearms from those who pose a danger to themselves or others; provide more funding for states to better implement those laws they might already have in place; enhance background checks on those under 21; invest in mental health services, and more. Murphy recently explained on Twitter how measures in the new gun control law could have prevented the Highland Park, Illinois shooting, which killed seven people.
Although the state already had a red flag law in place, the suspect was still able to successfully apply for a gun license there in 2019, even though that same year he had attempted suicide and police had been called when he threatened to kill relatives. After passing several background checks, he was able to buy guns in 2020 and 2021, including an AR-15-style rifle. More funding to enforce Illinois’ law could have saved the lives of seven people and prevented their loved ones from experiencing an unimaginable pain that has become all too familiar in the U.S.
Indeed, the new law is a big step in the right direction. But while we take a moment to celebrate this historic win in the passage of gun legislation after nearly 30 years, it’s critical to recognize this is, metaphorically speaking, Day One.
As Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey reminded us after Biden signed the law: “We ain’t to the Promised Land, but God, we made some progress today.” And that progress has to be combined with further actions, such as expansion of background checks, including for obtaining ammunition (Jaime’s Law); strengthening safe storage of guns (Ethan’s Law); confirming a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives director and providing the agency with the resources needed to enforce the law; and commissioning a surgeon general’s report on gun violence in America.
These actions are more important now than ever. As we have seen in recent weeks, while Congress took important steps forward to ensure public safety, the Supreme Court did the exact opposite in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, by overturning a century-old New York law and ruling that individuals have a right to carry “commonly used” firearms in public for self-defense, without having to prove “proper cause.” Not only is this an unprecedented and unwelcome change, this decision will make Americans less safe.
Other actions of the Supreme Court, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade — which tramples on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy — also make Americans less safe. Essentially the message was that guns have more rights than women. The partisan decisions made by the court undermine the public’s trust in what was once considered a great political institution.
This is why Americans, now more than ever, must not stand on the sidelines of history as reckless decisions and actions continue to be made by those in power.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would not have been possible without voters who elected gun-violence prevention champions to both chambers of Congress and the White House. And this will be true for all other issues that our nation faces.
From gun violence to women’s rights, or immigration to climate change, the burden of deciding these issues has often been placed on the shoulders of a few. That is a recipe for failure. Each and every one of us has the opportunity and responsibility to be active participants in protecting our democracy. We do this by voting.
Tomorrow begins today. Stand up in your communities. We cannot ignore any elected office; from school boards to the White House. All elected positions matter in our democracy. Make sure that your voice is heard. And as gun control activist Sarah Brady once said, “If you can’t change the laws, change the lawmakers.”
The silver lining is that you will meet some incredible people along the way, and develop unexpected friendships with individuals who become family.