As a 36-year veteran of the Chaska, Minn., police force, I have seen the devastating toll of gun violence in the suburbs of Minneapolis. As chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, I saw it in police departments across the country. As an American, I see it in the 33 people who are murdered with guns every single day.
But I have also seen it go completely ignored in the halls of Congress. Among the Senate’s newest members, few have embraced this dereliction of duty more than Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Just three weeks after the murder of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., Heitkamp said the gun- violence-prevention proposals being floated by the White House were “way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about.”
Heitkamp was responding to a Washington Post article published earlier that day, which mentioned common-sense public safety measures such as extending criminal background checks to all gun sales, giving law enforcement the tools to track crime guns and increasing penalties for existing laws.
Like so many politicians before her, Heitkamp deflected the conversation by calling for a “broad discussion” before any new gun laws could even be considered. But while a discussion of gun violence must also include issues such as mental health, Heitkamp cannot ignore the fact that it is our broken gun laws — more than anything else — that are killing our children every single day.
Approximately 40 percent to 50 percent of guns are sold privately, which means they are not subject to a background check under federal law. Last year, that amounted to 6.6 million firearms sold without any knowledge of the criminal record or mental health of their purchasers. The market for guns is akin to an airport where almost half of all airline passengers don’t go through a security check.
We wouldn’t stand for that at our airports and we shouldn’t stand for it at our gun shows. That’s why 10 national law enforcement agencies have endorsed legislation that would close the private-sale loophole and increase mental health records reporting to the background-check system.
Like most Americans, we believe the Second Amendment goes hand in hand with keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Many gun rights organizations have called for improving records reporting to the background check system, and 82 percent of all gun owners — including 74 percent of NRA members — support extending background checks to private sales.
A more robust background-check system would prevent much of the gun violence that claims so many innocent lives across the country, including in Heitkamp’s own backyard. Last November, a gunman killed one woman and three of her grandchildren in the quiet North Dakota suburb of New Town. The shooter was prohibited from purchasing a firearm because he had recently pleaded guilty to a felony, but our broken background-check system easily allowed him to acquire the rifle he used in the shooting.
Whether it’s New Town or Newtown, we see so many similar stories play out every day in communities across the country. Of the 12,000 Americans murdered with firearms every year, many of them are innocent children, their lives cut short prematurely by a gun in the wrong hands.
How long until politicians realize the extremism of their own cavalier attitudes toward guns in the face of untold suffering?
My law enforcement colleagues and I understand we have a solemn duty to protect and serve our communities, but we cannot do so when our hands are tied by congressional inaction.
Heitkamp ought to honor her own commitment to her constituents — especially those who have been personally affected by gun violence — by fixing our broken laws and empowering the police officers on our streets to fight crime.
I would hardly call that “extreme.” But Heitkamp and the rest of Congress failing to respond to the murder of 20 innocent children and six of their teachers — surely that’s as extreme as it gets.
Scott Knight, the chief of police in Chaska, Minn., is former chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.