Congress, Gun Deaths, and the Real “National Emergency”

After eight years, a House committee will again bear witness to testimony about gun violence.

February 4, 2019

President Donald Trump continued to prop up his unpopular and regressive immigration policies this past weekend by insisting there is a “national emergency” at our Southern border. He’s made a tepid effort to address the opioid epidemic, which actually is a real “national emergency.” But two years into his term he is still ignoring the most obvious and pressing “national emergency’’ unfolding daily in America. One that has affected, in one way or another, tens of millions of us in every corner of the country.

It’s been 746 days since Trump took office proclaiming an end to the “American carnage” caused by “crime and the gangs and the drugs.” In that time, approximately 74,600 Americans have lost their lives to gun violence. Each day, amid all the Tweets and the “executive time” and the photo opportunities with law enforcement officials, 100 Americans die either by shooting themselves or shooting one another. In just two years, more Americans have died in this fashion than were killed during the Vietnam War or were killed in combat in World War I.

The gun victims in Trump’s America aren’t soldiers – though there are frightful statistics about the number of military veterans who are committing suicide. The gun victims are mothers and fathers and sons, daughters and brothers, sisters and friends and co-workers. They aren’t imaginary figures like the hordes of rapists Trump claims are trying to cross our borders. They are real. We can see their death certificates. Their blood stains our hands. And they are being killed or wounded right in front of us. In our streets and our homes. In our schools and bars.

For years, Congress has been silent about this American tragedy even as state and local legislators have wrestled with the consequences of mass shootings. Worse than silent, actually, for Republican lawmakers over the past decade haven’t just failed to enact legislation that might stem the tide but have instead actively sought to suppress evidence and facts about the toll guns take on the nation. But from this darkness, at last, is emerging some light. The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will hold a public hearing about gun violence.

The hearing itself is important just because it’s actually happening in a chamber poised to do something about gun violence. It’s a tangible sign, first, of the reordering of the House of Representatives; of the grand electioneering success that “gun-sense” groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America had in the run-up to last November’s midterm elections. Many of those 40 Democrats who wrestled seats from their Republican opponents last fall would not have done so with the help of Moms Demand Action.

The hearing also a tangible sign of the decline of the political power of the NRA, the unrepentant gun lobby now reeling from stories about its links to Russian operatives and the 2016 election. It comes a few weeks after the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in 80 years signaled it is primed to restrict or strike down state and local gun laws under the guise of recognizing broader Second Amendment rights. And maybe federal laws, too, if Congress ever actually passed even modest legislation (on, say, a better background check system).

But most of all, Wednesday’s hearing is significant because of the witnesses chosen to speak to the panel. Their words, and not the words of the politicians who first will speechify and then will question them, will matter most. And these voices, these ordinary Americans, these non-politicians, each will bear witness to the small part of the “national emergency” they’ve endured. They will in this way add to the historical record and make it harder, eventually, for Congress to continue its supine response to all this violent death.  

For example, Aalayah Eastmond will speak. She is a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and she will come to Capitol Hill 51 weeks after her classmates were slaughtered. Savannah Lindquist will speak. She thinks colleges should allow students more access to guns. She says one might have prevented her rape years ago.

Diane Latiker will testify. She wants to tell lawmakers what it is like to try to save children from gun violence in Chicago, where she lives and operates “Kids Off the Block.” Dr. Joseph V. Sakran, director of emergency surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, also will show up in Washington on Wednesday, describing the trauma bullets cause to the human body; damage he says he has seen too often. It’s a “public health crisis,” he says. And he’s right.

He probably won’t get much argument either from Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, who is in charge of the Domestic Violence Unit of the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office. She’s coming to Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers about the obvious and growing links between domestic abusers and gun violence. Art Acevedo will be there Wednesday, all the way from Houston. He’s chief of police there, fresh off another spasm of gun violence toward police, and you can bet he’ll tell the panel that there is more support from police for reasonable gun regulations than they think.

Joyce Lee Malcolm, a professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, also will be present. No doubt she was invited by committee Republicans who want her to temper all the gun reform talk by testifying about the history of the Second Amendment and its application in modern-day America. Hopefully she’ll be followed by Robyn Thomas, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, to explain why there can be a robust Second Amendment and gun regulation, too.

House Democrats rightly concede that this hearing is only a first step in what they humbly call their “holistic” search for answers to the deadliest, persistent national emergency in American history. But at least it’s a start. And I can think of a dozen other expert witnesses who should be called next to Capitol Hill to talk about the ways in which federal lawmakers can do something about gun violence without running afoul of the Second Amendment as it’s now interpreted by the Court’s conservative majority.

For now, though, it is worth a moment of gratitude that at least one chamber in Congress again sees gun violence for what it is. Not as something so mysterious and insurmountable it can only be endured with thoughts and prayers and a recitation of the jumble of ambiguous clauses that make up the Second Amendment. Not as some other ginned-up “emergency” the president is foisting on us in patently bad faith. But rather as one of the most basic and ruthless problems we face; one that we’ve created and one that we can and must solve.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Spencer Platt/Getty)