The Senate’s inability last spring to pass a bipartisan plan to expand gun background checks despite strong nationwide sentiment in its favor is motivating a broad coalition of advocates to promote gun violence prevention laws. Advocates say they hope eventually to sway enough House and Senate members to overcome the influence of gun rights groups and firearms manufacturers. Gun violence prevention advocates said the incident at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman killed 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012, has galvanized the public to support sensible limits on gun ownership.
“Newtown, to me, is like the Birmingham, Ala., police riots during the civil rights era,” said Vincent DeMarco, national coordinator of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. “Newtown woke up the country. The same kind of momentum is there on gun violence prevention.”
Advocates like DeMarco hope to see several provisions aimed at reducing gun violence enacted at the federal level. They came close in April last year in Washington but could not reach the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster challenge. That defeated effort would have expanded background checks for gun purchases, increased penalties for gun trafficking, reinstituted the ban on assault weapons and restricted access to high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Those measures were endorsed in a letter to Congress on Dec. 9 from Faith United and 54 faith leaders, including 15 Catholic representatives. Among its signers was the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.
“We have an obligation to protect life and that obligation trumps the desire that some have in our society for dangerous and life-threatening amusements,” Father Snyder said. “If you look at what we’re asking for from Congress, to me, they are just very common sense things. The majority of Americans already support background checks, so why is it so difficult [to get this passed]?”
The December letter was delivered despite the absence of any pending federal legislation, while gun violence, at times marked by mass shootings in public settings, continued apace in the year since Newtown. If 2013 follows recent annual trends, more than 30,000 people will have died because of violent incidents connected with firearms.
Because of the lack of movement at the federal level, grass-roots groups have turned their efforts to state legislatures. Eight states enacted significant gun safety laws in 2013, while 13 states took smaller legislative steps.
Maryland’s new gun law in particular has been applauded by advocates. As of Oct. 1, Marylanders must meet fingerprinting and training requirements before buying a gun. The law also bans 45 types of assault rifles and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and includes steps that make it more difficult for mentally ill people to obtain a gun. DeMarco credited the Maryland Catholic Conference for its role in the law’s passage.
John Snyder, president of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society, a Catholic group that supports gun rights, criticized Catholics, bishops in particular, for advocating limits on gun ownership. “Bishops have a right to speak out on moral issues, but their authority doesn’t extend to political issues in which they have no understanding,” Snyder said.
“The bishops, [whom] I hate to criticize, don’t know what they’re talking about,” he added. “I think they’ve fallen victim to a lot of errant propaganda by people who wish to see Americans disarmed.”