The mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School brought back a flood of memories from August 10, 1999. That’s when gunman Buford Furrow terrorized the North Valley Jewish Community Center, wounding children and adults, then murdering a postal worker. I was on the Los Angeles City Council then, and my own young children were enrolled at a different Jewish Community Center across town. After making sure they were safe, I raced to the North Valley to comfort the parents of a boy wounded in the attack. That boy, who fortunately survived, could easily have been my own.
The Sandy Hook shootings have struck such a deep chord because all parents can imagine the horror of losing a child, and they empathize with the suffering of the families in Newtown. This same anguish is experienced all too often by parents in communities throughout Los Angeles whose children are killed by gun violence.
As President Obama said so poignantly, the killings stir in each of us the powerful instinct to keep our children safe. We know, of course, that we can’t always succeed. But there’s nothing more important than doing all we can to try.
This primal, protective urge may finally awaken the national determination to address gun violence in a serious way. It is time to draw upon the courage of parents to make real progress toward a safer country, especially for our children.
We know that sensible policies can vastly reduce gun violence. For 10 years, the assault weapon ban, signed by President Clinton in 1994, took firearms off the street exactly like the Bushmaster assault weapon used to fire multiple rounds at each of the 20 children killed in Newtown. Since that law expired, the gun lobby’s surrogates in Congress have blocked every effort to renew it.
We need an army of determined parents to change the debate on gun legislation in Congress.
Also in the 1990s, and at the specific request of law enforcement agencies, several cities and states (including Los Angeles, followed by the State of California) limited gun sales to one per person each month. These laws help combat gun traffickers who had been acquiring multiple firearms at a time (usually through straw buyers with clean records) and then reselling them on the street. In the few jurisdictions where they exist, gun-a-month laws have made it harder for criminals to arm themselves. The effectiveness of these laws would be multiplied exponentially if Congress were to make this sensible approach the law of the land.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms used to work cooperatively with cities and states across the country to develop smarter gun laws and to better enforce those on the books. The election of George W. Bush put an end to that spirit of cooperation and began an era in which national progress toward sensible gun regulations was reversed, leaving it to a few states and cities (Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts come to mind) to do what the federal government would not. Groups like the NRA and its kin have targeted elected officials who support sane gun control.
Still, there have been bright spots, and it is that foundation on which parents and the leaders they back now can build. For example, California has enacted legislation, supported by more than 60 police chiefs and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca requiring the micro-stamping of semi-automatic handguns so that law enforcers can determine from markings on shell casings at a crime scene who bought the crime gun. Despite opposition by the gun lobby, this landmark law soon will take effect, creating a model for national legislation that could revolutionize law enforcement.
There should be common ground around efforts to enforce gun laws on the books. Federal, state and local enforcement agencies should prioritize cracking down on gun violations, with a special focus on getting guns out of the hands of felons, the mentally ill and other people prohibited from possessing weapons. Leaders of these agencies should emphasize a renewed level of cooperation on gun issues so that investigations, arrests and prosecutions move forward effectively.
There should also be broad agreement about enhancing school safety, both on-campus and in surrounding neighborhoods, with a focus on keeping weapons away from places that should be safe sanctuaries. Recent calls to broaden access to mental health services should elicit bipartisan consensus.
The heartbreaking attack in Connecticut has the potential to alter the course of our nation. It was a punch in the gut to every parent in America. Now it is time — at long last — to do what is necessary to protect our children from senseless violence. This is far more than an appeal to emotion. It is a call to draw on one of our most profound instincts. We can harness this strength to overcome political inertia and rise to meet one of our greatest national challenges.
Mike Feuer, a former member of the Los Angeles City Council and the California Assembly, is the author of multiple laws aimed at stemming gun violence. He is a candidate for Los Angeles City Attorney.
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