When Sayfullo Saipov careened down a bicycle path, killing eight people on Oct. 31, police had no trouble tracing the weapon he used, a Home Depot rental truck. But that task would likely have been considerably more challenging if Saipov had used a firearm.
U.S. lawmakers, supported by the National Rifle Association, have enacted laws that hobble the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when it comes to collecting and using information that could aid law enforcement and improve gun safety. As a result, an organization with a claimed membership of 5 million has managed to restrict information that affects the lives of almost 324 million Americans.
Let’s start with the ATF. The bureau is precluded by law from creating a searchable database or registry of gun owners or firearm transactions. That’s right. Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of the NRA, the ATF is required to scan records in such a way that they can’t be queried or turned into searchable files. That means that when it gets a request from a law enforcement agency trying to track a gun found at a crime scene, ATF staff members are, in essence, flipping through a file cabinet to learn where, when and to whom the gun was sold.
Any system is subject to failure due to human error, as the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, demonstrates. The shooter had been convicted of assaulting his wife, which should have barred him from being able to own guns. But the Air Force has acknowledged that an officer failed to enter his domestic violence court-martial into a national database. That doesn’t mean the database shouldn’t exist.
It isn’t just the ATF that is hobbled by such a completely indefensible law. Responding to pressure from the NRA, in 1996 Congress prohibited the CDC from funding public health research into firearms. When fatal car accidents occur, data about speed, age and sex of driver, seatbelt use, and numerous other variables go into a database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thanks in large part to that data, car safety standards have resulted in 27 percent fewer car deaths over the past few decades, according to a report in Wired magazine.
The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control exists to fund research into topics like suicide and domestic violence. If Congress didn’t forbid it from funding research into gun-related violence, it’s possible that the number of deaths from such incidents could be greatly reduced.
When did we become a nation afraid of information that could save lives?
We can only suppose that those who control the NRA fear such knowledge might result in a groundswell of support for severely restricting access to guns. But the U.S. Constitution affirms our right to own guns and the Supreme Court has said it is an individual right. A gun is a tool that can be used for numerous legitimate purposes, including self-defense, hunting and marksmanship. What’s needed are the kind of laws and safety standards that apply to other potentially deadly tools we use every day. Even with improved safety standards, cars killed more people in the U.S. than guns in 2013, by 33,804 to 33,636. The Oct. 31 murders-by-truck in New York City are a tragic reminder that cars have even become a weapon of choice in terrorist attacks. No one is talking about banning cars. But no reasonable person wants you to drive one unless it’s registered, you’re licensed and that information resides in a searchable database available to law enforcement.
When NRA paranoia makes solving crimes and improving safety standards more difficult, it’s gone too far. How can such a small percentage of the population have the power to muzzle government agencies?
Here’s how: The NRA spends millions of dollars to support the campaigns of candidates who agree with its positions. And two of the top current beneficiaries represent North Carolina. In October, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that only one of the 535 members of Congress has gotten more help from the NRA than Sen. Richard Burr and only three, including Burr, have gotten more than Sen. Thom Tillis. Both have perfect scores on NRA-backed legislation.
Voting in lockstep with any powerful lobbying group, especially one as paranoid as the NRA, results in the greatest failure one can manifest as an elected representative — serving special interests at the expense of constituents, especially where health and safety are concerned. It’s time North Carolinians pressured their senators to put them first and lead the charge to reverse these unsupportable laws.