Just over six years ago, our nation was reeling from the horror of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Americans across the country looked to their leaders to do something about the gun violence. Many thought this would be a tipping point.
But as we know now, in the wake of Sandy Hook and in the years since, Congress has been unable to pass meaningful gun violence prevention legislation.
And last week, new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscored how important it is to pass strong gun safety laws. It showed that for the first time in modern history, substantially more Americans were killed with firearms than in motor vehicle crashes.
I know something about the reasons motor vehicle deaths have declined, and why gun deaths are increasing. You see, I worked at Mothers Against Drunk Driving for 15 years, including five years as the CEO. Now, I manage grassroots engagement for Everytown for Gun Safety.
Soon after the shooting at Sandy Hook, a woman named Shannon Watts decided she needed to do something about gun violence in America. She searched for an organization similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but focused on gun violence prevention. Turns out there wasn’t a group like that — yet. Watts picked up the phone and called the MADD national helpline to seek advice on how to create a national movement of mothers like herself who supported gun safety.
On that particular day, I was volunteering on MADD’s helpline, and I happened to be the one who picked up Watts’s call. We discussed best practices for building a national volunteer grassroots organization. Soon, the Facebook page Watts started from her kitchen would grow into Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Since 1980, when MADD was founded by a bereaved mother after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver, motor vehicle deaths have declined as a result of grassroots activism, meaningful changes to law and policy, technological and cultural changes, as well as investments in research. The new CDC data shows motor vehicle deaths declined slightly in 2017, a continuation of a decades-long downward trend. In fact, the motor vehicle death rate has been nearly cut in half since 1980.
Gun deaths, on the other hand, increased slightly in 2017. Nearly 40,000 people were killed by gun violence in 2017, about 1,100 more than were killed in motor vehicle crashes. An estimated 14,542 people are killed in homicides with guns, according to the CDC. A rise in gun-related suicides also contributed to the increase. An estimated 23,854 people died from suicide using guns in 2017.
As the former CEO of MADD, I see the contrast in these numbers as a reminder of the impact we can have on public crises when policymakers, researchers, industry leaders, victims, survivors and concerned advocates work together to save lives.
While we’ve begun and continue to tackle motor vehicle deaths with real policy solutions, like raising the minimum drinking age, creating a national standard for blood alcohol content, regulating airbags and requiring the use of seat belts, we have not done nearly enough to combat our nation’s gun violence crisis. The lifesaving work to reduce motor vehicle deaths was the result of Congress and the executive branch working together in a bipartisan way to tackle a public health crisis. Unfortunately, because of the gun lobby’s stranglehold on many of our lawmakers, gun violence hasn’t gotten the same treatment, despite a clear need for stronger gun laws.
Since Congress has failed to enact stronger gun laws, regular Americans have stepped up. Since 2012, Moms Demand Action has grown from a Facebook page into the nation’s largest grassroots gun violence prevention organization with more than five million supporters. Our volunteers have been hard at work, advocating for laws to keep our families safe from gun violence. In 2018 alone, 20 states passed meaningful gun safety laws, nine of them signed into law by Republican governors.
It’s time that Democrats and Republicans reach across the aisle and work together to confront our nation’s gun violence crisis. Come January, we’ll be looking to the new Congress to pass meaningful laws — like background checks on all gun sales — and work together in a bipartisan way.
No family should face the lifetime sentence of grief when their loved one dies or is wounded by a preventable gun tragedy. Gun violence isn’t a right or left issue — it’s life or death issue. The time has come for Congress to take action.
Debbie Weir is the senior managing director of organizing and engagement at Everytown for Gun Safety and previously spent 15 years at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, including five years as the CEO.