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In the United States, 31,224 people die from gun violence each year and 66,768 other people are injured by guns yet survive.  

These statistics, from the CDC Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, have not been contested.  Policy-makers agree that something must be done, but have very different ideas about how to deal with this politically-charged issue. The most contentious aspect of the gun-control debate is whether existing gun laws are sufficient, or whether more gun laws are needed.The recent shooting of Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner (see accompanying sidebar) raised the level of the gun-control debate in two key areas:  a ban on assault weapons and the sale of guns to the mentally ill. 

In 1994, as part of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, an Assault Weapons Ban was put into effect, as a subtitle.  It prohibited the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms.  The ban expired in 2004.  Under the assault weapons ban it was illegal to make or sell ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds. The magazine used by Loughner held 31 rounds.  In reaction to the Giffords shooting, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill (HR308) which would outlaw gun clips with more than 10 rounds.    

Kenneth Barnes, the founder of Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT Inc.), has a reason for working to prevent gun violence.  “My son was murdered in Washington D.C., in 2001 by a 17-year old guy who had murdered at least two other people,” he said.  But he still feels that the McCarthy is the wrong approach.  He believes McCarthy’s bill is reactive, instead of being proactive.  “The argument is that if we lower the clip size, someone can jump on the assailant... to me, that's crazy. In other words, we know [shootings are] going to happen again. That legislation will not stop one person [from] getting shot in America.”

Barnes’ proactive approach is different.  In 2009, ROOT proposed the Communities in Action Neighborhood Defense and Opportunity Act (CAN-DO) through Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill). The act was designed to reduce gun violence in the ten most violent cities in America by establishing a program of grants to create CAN-DO Centers.  “It relies upon community policing, mental health issues, job training and education,” he said.  The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security but never got as far as a House vote. 

Barnes also makes a point about the sale of guns to the mentally ill.  “There are pretty good laws on the books right now that prevent mentally deranged people from purchasing guns.”  The assertion that existing laws are sufficient was re-stated by Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.  “The best way to address crime and violence is to ensure existing laws are enforced adequately,” he said.  “Politicians who favor gun control just enact more laws that will affect law-abiding Americans.”  He argued that there is too much focus on restricting gun ownership for the general population and not enough focus on limiting gun access for criminals and the mentally ill.  “We’d like to see politicians focus on going after the criminal element and not going after law-abiding hunters and gun owners.”

But even though current federal laws prohibit selling weapons to the mentally ill, many people think those laws are not strong enough.  Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, quoted on, noted that current gun control laws allow “no way to determine [that someone] is a mentally ill person. The only thing the existing law does about that is quite absurd.”  Referring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives form, he noted, “[it] only asks the applicant whether ‘they had been adjudicated dangerously mentally ill’.  What’s more, there is no waiting period in Arizona unless someone is flagged by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a measure even more unlikely to work in Arizona as the state is woefully behind in entering the 121,700 records of disqualifying mental illness into NICS, having entered only 4,465 between 2008 and 2010.”

That sentiment was echoed by The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is an organization that works to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Founded as the National Council to Control Handguns, it was renamed in honor of Jim Brady in 2001. Brady was President Ronald's Reagan's press secretary; he was shot and seriously wounded during the assassination attempt on the president in 1981. The assailant was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act went into effect in 1993.  Amending the Gun Control Act of 1968, it instituted a waiting period of five days before a federally licensed gun manufacturer or dealer may provide a handgun to a customer. During the five-day waiting period, the gun dealer must initiate a background check from either state or federal authorities. The system is intended to keep convicted felons and individuals with a history of mental illness from purchasing handguns. In practice, however, the Brady Campaign reported that “through 2007 (the last full year reported), 38 out of 50 states had provided fewer than 100 records of court judgments of dangerous mental illness, and 21 had provided zero records, to the NICS system.”  Because not all mentally ill individuals are reported to the federal database, these individuals are still free to purchase handguns.

The Brady Law has made it more difficult for criminals to acquire handguns, but there is a way around the law.  Barnes explained that most criminals use “straw purchasers” to obtain guns. The straw purchasers buy guns legally, then turn around and sell them to convicted felons who can't legally obtain handguns themselves.  “200 people are shot every day in America [by illegally purchased guns],” he said. “Since Washington D.C. has strict gun control laws, most D.C. area straw purchasers go to Maryland or Virginia to buy handguns.” Barnes knew of one gun store in Prince Georges Country, Maryland, which has sold the handguns responsible for 30 to 50 recent homicides in the area.

There is also the gun-show loophole, under which anyone can buy a gun from a private dealer without a background check.

Stronger laws have been proposed by the Brady Campaign and others.  Opposition to that approach from the NRA and others has been strong.  The Obama administration has indicated that it will consider pushing for additional legislation, but with the recent Republican gains in the House and Senate they will face stiffer resistance. 
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