Immune To Tragedy: Gun Regulations in America

Globally suicide accounts for about 20% of all gun-related deaths. But in the United States, the country with the highest per-capita civilian gun ownership, over 60% of deaths from firearms are suicides. What accounts for this disparity? And why do efforts at gun reform continue to fail in this country? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with an attorney leading the charge for smarter, saner gun laws in the U.S. Robyn Thomas is the Executive Director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. We take a look at trends over the past few years, examine disputes over the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and discuss the persistent political standstill which seems immune to tragedy.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Robyn Thomas  0:17  Look at the average family or community in Texas. They’re not so concerned about having access to assault weapons what they’d rather have is their children safe at school. And if the messaging is done right in a way that people understand this isn’t a choice between all or nothing. This isn’t about, can you have guns or no guns? It’s about can we implement the kinds of common sense regulations that will make our children safer and doesn’t change people’s ability to go hunting or sports shooting or whatever it is, that’s really important to them.

Narrator 0:47  Globally, suicide accounts for about 20% of all gun related deaths. But in the United States, the country with the highest per capita civilian gun ownership, over 60% of deaths from firearms are suicides. what accounts for this disparity? And why do efforts at gun reform continue to fail in this country? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with an attorney leading the charge for smarter saner gun laws in the US. Robyn Thomas is the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. We take a look at trends over the past few years, examined disputes over the interpretation of the Second Amendment and discuss the persistent political standstill, which seems immune to tragedy.

Alex Wise  1:57  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Robyn Thomas. She is the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Robyn, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Robyn Thomas  2:06  Thank you so much for having me, Alex.

Alex Wise  2:08  So explain what the mission of the Giffords Law Center is, and maybe the evolution of the organization. It’s a fairly newly dubbed nonprofit, correct?

Robyn Thomas  2:19  Yeah, the origin story goes back about 28 years, in early July of 1993, there was a mass shooting at a law firm in downtown San Francisco, the law firm of pet and Martin. And following that tragedy, the legal community in the city of San Francisco, many of whom had lost friends and colleagues decided to get together and do something about gun violence. So they formed what was then called the legal community against violence. And the mission was to corral and inspire the involvement of the legal community in the United States to help and to support the movement to reduce and prevent gun violence. Initially, they focused on what was then a federal assault weapon ban, which they succeeded in helping to pass in 1994, unfortunately, that sunset, and expired in 2004, and was not renewed, but they did have early success in accomplishing what they set out to do. And once they accomplish that, they turn their attention mostly to California laws, and then eventually to other national laws to try and create a model here in California, of what comprehensive thoughtful gun regulation could look like. I’ll skip over some of the early work that they did in the successes they had, California has the strongest gun laws in the country, in large part due to the work that was done by the organization over the last now almost 30 years. And it really has created a model that other states have then stepped up to rapidly try and replicate and and adopt. Later on as there were opportunities. Other states will look to California for inspiration. So we rebranded as the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and in about 20 I want to say mark and Gabby formed, sorry, Senator Mark Kelly, and former representative Gabby Giffords formed in about 2012. So Gabby was as many people listening will remember, there was an attempted assassination against her at a Congress on your corner event in jail on January 8 2011. She spent most of the next year in very intensive surgery and recovery and, you know, rehab just developing again hurt the ability to walk and sort of function. And in late 2012, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened December 14 2012. And following that event, Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords decided to launch an organization to try and do something about gun violence on the premise that, you know, Gabby had a unique voice and was a unique ambassador for the issue based on her experience. So that was in 20. 13 and I met Mark Kelly at an event I should say, Senator Mark Kelly, although he wasn’t the senator then at an event for gun violence, soon after that, so it was maybe in about 2014. And we decided that, because they were mostly focused on politics, their highest talents and skills and knowledge and connections in the world really had to do with their desire to move the politics of this issue to make it the case that politicians could lead on this issue that, you know, for many, many years, this was a very third rail issue politically, and those that spoke out in favor of gun policy reform often drew the wrath of the NRA, who would go target them basically, and made it very hard to convince politicians to be champions on this issue. So Mark and Gaby set out to change that dynamic to basically ensure that we could find champions on this issue that they would get supported publicly that they would get financial support that they would have an incentive to speak up on this issue. And in doing so to balance the scales a bit, and make it an issue that politicians could vote their conscience on, instead of voting out of fear of being lobbied against by the NRA. So they were doing a lot of political work. And we had already by then, for more than 20 years, been the lead national leading policy experts on gun policy reform. So what we did was we partnered, and we started to work together on a variety of projects, we would do the legal and policy and analysis, you know, domestic violence and guns, and it would have a set of policy solutions that went along with it. And they would take these reports, and then take them out and use them to educate legislators to push for change to use the might of their voice and their sort of lobbying and political weight to try and make things happen based on our recommendations. And it was very successful, it was kind of a perfect collaboration.

Alex Wise  6:54  Is gun violence up in the last 18 months? And if so, what does the Giffords Law Center attribute that to –  what are we seeing that is moving the needle?

Robyn Thomas  7:04  So when you see the last 18 months, we’re talking about basically in the time of COVID, gun violence over the last three years has been steadily increasing. So it was down it was very, very high in the in the 80s. And early 90s. It took a pretty significant reduction, it was down to about 30 is still far too many, but down to about 3030 to 33,000 deaths a year more than 100,000 shootings for quite some time, it was sort of stayed pretty steady. And in the last few years, it’s gone up quite a bit. We were up to about 38,000 shootings last year or so. Or not shootings, deaths, which led which translated into about 120,000 shootings, those numbers are up. And interestingly, mass shootings were down not down in the smaller numbers. But the high fatality mass shootings, actually were down in the last 18 months. Not surprisingly, because of COVID. there just weren’t a lot of mass gatherings, which is often unfortunately, where that happens. The reason why gun violence was significantly up in the last two years has to do with a few things, I think, mostly COVID related. One is suicide. So the largest portion of gun deaths in America is actually suicides to about two thirds. So with something like COVID, where people are isolated where they’re facing a lot greater stress, we know mental health issues were exacerbated by COVID for so many people, and because suicide is an impulsive act, and when guns are present, extremely lethal, we saw an increase there also saw an increase in domestic violence incidents, many of them unfortunately, which lead to fatalities. So with predominantly women, who are the victims of this stuck at home, not able to get the help they need or the support, they need to maybe leave an abusive situation we saw an increase in domestic violence fatalities. Same thing with children and accidents. You had children who would normally be at school all day, home all day stuck in the house with I think it’s about 2 million homes which have loaded unsecured weapons with children in the home. So there was a greater increase of accidents with children. We are seeing an increase now in community violence, shootings, you know, the community violence work, which really focuses on the population, young men of color make up about 6% of the population and represent about 50% of homicides, the best, most effective way of tackling that issue. And that kind of gun violence is through community based violence intervention programs like ceasefire in Oakland and advanced peace and other cities here in California. And some people know about, you know, other types of programs Cure Violence, there’s all these different models of Violence Intervention. Well, a lot of them rely upon street outreach workers to get involved in the community and help with these interventions. And in a time of COVID, many of these programs weren’t able to operate. So we also saw an increase in community violence. So really, while mass shootings are the ones that get the the news that get the coverage that people know about. And remember, that makes up a tiny, tiny percentage of that number of shootings and math and deaths. And all of the other areas outside of mass shootings were up quite a bit the last 18 months.

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Alex Wise 11:10  this is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Robyn Thomas. She’s the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. So Robyn, let’s turn to the political sphere and look at guns in the us right now in terms of policy, focusing on background checks, it looks for a little while before the election of Joe Biden that Republicans may be a little more flexible in terms of background checks, there was a little bit of momentum before the election, can you kind of catch us up to where things have gone on both sides of the aisle and your hopes for some kind of federal action on background checks that’s significant and satisfies you and your colleagues at the Gifford center.

Robyn Thomas  12:00  So we’ve been optimistic about background checks for a while now, mostly because 92% of the American public supports universal background checks, we kind of half joke, you can’t get 92% of Americans to agree on anything, not even ice cream and puppies. And yet we agree on this. So our assumption was okay, if 92% of Americans want this, obviously, it’s going to happen. We actually did get it passed HR-8 got through the House in 2018, I believe.

Alex Wise  12:30  And what exactly is HR-8, sorry,

Robyn Thomas  12:33  HR-8 is the bipartisan background checks act. And it basically fills the gaps because now you have a background check required on the sale of a gun if you buy it from a federally licensed firearms dealer. But if you buy a gun online, if you buy a gun at a private sale or at a gun show from a licensed dealer, then there’s no background check required by federal law. So about 21 states give or take have passed state laws that fill some of that they either require a background check on online sales or gun shows or in California, we cry, we require a background check on every sale and transfer of a gun. So there’s been some movement to fill that gap but not at the federal level. So what HR eight would do would be to require all gun sales to be you know, conducted with a background check. Now there are exceptions for for family, immediate family members or loans for hunting, things that you know, I think are important to gun owners that it not be sort of overly cumbersome. But really it would capture almost all of the unregulated sales now going on without background checks. So we got through the house, it passed the House resoundingly with bipartisan support, I believe there were eight Republicans who voted for that bill. So it got through, and then it went over to the Senate side, and proceeded to languish there. And we believe that once the senate came back with the majority now it’s 5050 split. But really, it’s a majority, and very strong support from President Biden, that this is something that we could get done. And we’ve been aggressively talking about how important this is as a way to make progress. And I actually testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee in 2019, around this bill, and then I testified in front of the senate again this year in march around this bill and other legislation. And unfortunately, it hasn’t even been brought to a vote and it still sits there in the Senate. I would like to believe we have 50 votes for it at least because it is something that is so popularly supported. But with filibuster rules. 50 votes isn’t enough right now. So you really do need to get closer to 60 in order to get much accomplished on legislation like this. So it is sitting there and we are optimistic that first of all, it can be bipartisan in the same way that it was in the house, and that it’s something we have to continue pushing for because it is something the American people really care about. I mean when when they So people coming out from voting in the last election, gun violence was at the top of the list, it was one of the top three issues that people were most concerned about. So we know this has become a voting issue for people. And that in many places, if legislators don’t stand up on this, they face consequences.

Alex Wise  15:17  And at the crux of the issue is the second amendment. It’s an age old discussion. We have a Supreme Court that is six to three conservative right now. So it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any progressive change from the judicial branch on that count. What are kind of are your greatest fears for what the court can do to kind of reverse some of the work that you and your colleagues do and on the flip side, what are some of the ways that we can work around this court? And it’s very narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment and as a kind of a sidebar that maybe you can kind of clarify your organization’s reading of the Second Amendment.

Robyn Thomas  16:00  Yeah, you can’t talk about guns without talking about the Second Amendment, which reads for people who don’t know, a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed for many years for 200 years or more after the founding of our country. courts, pretty much unanimously held that the Second Amendment doesn’t involve a private right to gun ownership. It involves a militia related, right, basically what we call a collective right. And it was never accepted as a valid response to prohibiting gun regulation. Well, in 2008, the Supreme Court took up a case called Heller, Heller versus DC, and it was a challenge to Washington DC is almost complete ban on private gun ownership, which have been in place for about 30 years. And unfortunately, for the first time in history, the Supreme Court held that you do in fact, have a private right to own a firearm. And that decision was very, very narrow, it said, you have a private right to own a handgun in your home for self defense, which is what was prohibited by DC law. It was frustrating because it really was a complete overturning of precedent without actually acknowledging that it made out as if this was always the case when it was for the first time identified in 2008. It was upsetting, and we knew it was going to lead to an avalanche of litigation against gun laws across the country, which it did. But it was a very narrow, narrow decision, it did not answer a lot of questions about what else the Second Amendment does or doesn’t do. In fact, Scalia penned the opinion. And he actually wrote about how the decision was not intended to cast out on other long standing prohibitions and, you know, public safety issues. Since then there’s only been one other Second Amendment case taken up by the court and I serpo, which was a case in New York, your Gosh, year or two ago, COVID time, but essentially challenged a law in New York City having to do with your ability to transport guns in your car. It was basically mooted by the court on procedural grounds. So nothing came out of that the court has a case right now. So the court has a case that’s being heard on November 3, also in New York City case. And then we’ll be probably the decision out sometime in the spring, usually it comes out the very last week of term. So the end of June. So you will be seeing a Supreme Court decision on gun policy next June. We are very afraid of this case, because of the court makeup. And what this case does is it challenges concealed carry permitting. So in New York City has a very restrictive concealed carry permitting system, you have to be able to show good cause, why you need to carry a loaded concealed weapon in public to get a permit in New York City. And in order to get it you have to be someone who I don’t know, carries a lot of cash and jewelry around at night or has had, you know, your life threatened or something that really explains why you might need this weapon. And they’re very rarely granted these these permits in New York City. And for anyone who spent any time in Time Square. You know why? It’s just simply not something that would make sense in a city like that. Well, that permitting system has been challenged. It’s up to the Supreme Court. And we’re concerned that this decision could affect concealed carry permitting. And really the broader question of what is your second amendment right outside the home? That is not something the Court has said anything about now, we believe the court can issue a really narrow opinion here, which really focuses on New York City’s law, and how that law might not withstand scrutiny. But some minor adjustments might be good enough. But it could be a broad opinion, which would really call into question concealed carry permitting systems across the country and many states don’t even have them anymore. It’s been targeted by the gun lobby to really do what they could to weaken permitting. In many states. You don’t even need a permit at all to carry a loaded concealed weapon in public. So we are nervous about this court. It’s an issue we’ve been concerned about. We’re certainly concerned about other I mean, there’s so little federal regulation on the books, so We’re really talking about state regulation states, like California have all kinds of really innovative and effective regulations that the gun lobby is. I mean, there’s so many lawsuits moving through the federal courts in California challenging all of our gun laws, because they’re just hoping and waiting for a chance to get these laws in front of the court. And it could be anything. It could be regulations on assault weapons, it could which are completely prohibited in the state of California or large capacity, ammunition magazines or safe storage laws or any number of other regulations that are very effective at reducing and preventing gun violence is why California has one of the lowest gun death rates in the country.

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Alex Wise  21:44  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Robyn Thomas. She’s the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. So I know the Gifford center, you’re not an arm of the Democratic Party. You’re not politically affiliated, and yet, this issue of gun violence has become so blue and red. What can unmoored the Republican Party from its current recalcitrance? Is it the money of the gun lobby? Is it the base and its interpretation of the second amendment that people who like guns will vote for republicans Generally, we always have a sandy hook type event and think, well, this is they can’t possibly not move now. But they never move. Is there any hope that some issue or some election will conform the winds of change in this country?

Robyn Thomas  22:36  I am actually happy to say the winds are changing. So I think back to your comment about what is it that holds such sway? Yes, it’s money. Yes, it’s they’re very, very active single issue base. And it’s also, you know, this belief that there isn’t a strong enough voice on the other side. And that has really changed dramatically in the last 10 years. I mean, I have seen radical change on this issue since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, not just in terms of the 300 laws we’ve helped pass at the state level since since that tragedy, but also at terms of the number of political candidates willing to champion this issue in their campaigns. I mean, 10 years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find candidates who would talk about gun policy in their campaign, because it didn’t earn them enough friends, and it made them a lot of enemies. And that has changed. I mean, I can even say, from a personal perspective. You know, when I would tell people what I do before Sandy Hook, they just sort of roll their eyes and after Sandy Hook, people would do teary eyed and be hugging me because they were so upset about what’s happening in this country. So there really was, I think, a pretty big shift after Sandy Hook, and again, after Parkland, and after some of these other sort of horrific public shootings, where it sort of creates an awakening. You know, the big difference I think on this is sort of those, those collar counties, all of these places where you have, you know, suburban seats, which may be red and maybe blue, but seem to be trending toward an issue towards this issue. So you know, say in like, you know, suburban Texas, you have districts that have like always voted red or have always voted for candidates who have a certain conservative position. And that’s changing a lot. I mean, part of its the demographics, but part of it is also on this issue, that you know, the soccer moms care now, whatever their political affiliation, this is something their kid having a lockdown drill at school is more important to them than a lot of other issues that they’re that they’re thinking about when they vote, and it is creating a shift. So I think, you know, we’re seeing we endorse something like 300 candidates the gifford’s arm of the organization in the last cycle, and I think more than 200 of them 250 of them one, including President Biden, who has been very assertive on this issue. There’s never been a president who ran for office on his on the platform. He And one has been outstanding and his administration, you know, they haven’t been able to do as much as we hoped. But certainly they seem to be listening. And that’s a lot more than we can say for, you know, almost any previous administration.

Alex Wise  25:13  And you mentioned Texas, Robyn, I can’t help but think that a state like Texas, which is so long been considered, deeply read, which is now we realize much more in play. And it could be a real test for how strong gun rights are in red America, we see the El Paso shooting, and then former congressman Beto O’Rourke came out with a strong denouncement of Texas, his current gun laws. And when he ran for Senate, he fell short against Ted Cruz, but he took what many considered to be a third rail position, if you will. If he does run for governor against Abbott, it’d be interesting to see if that could actually flip conventional wisdom on its head.

Robyn Thomas  26:03  Yeah, I mean, one of the things I love about Beto is that he seems to really speak his truth. You know, when he states his position on something like guns, I don’t feel like he’s standing there carefully calibrating what he knows, someone told him after focus group testing, he needs to say in order to get X number of votes, he’s actually wrote, he seems to me from what I can gather watching him that he’s actually speaking from the heart that this is something that he believes in. And I think it would be fascinating if he were to win the governor spot, because I think for the most part, people agree with him. I mean, you know whether he won or didn’t win against Cruz because of that issue or another as was hard to say. Cruz obviously has a lot of name recognition and has been in power a long time. But I think the people in Texas for the most part, the average Texan is comfortable with swith, some amount of gun regulation that’s not in place. Now, like I said, if you look at the average family or community in Texas, they’re not so concerned about having access to assault weapons, what they’d rather have is their children safe at school. And if the messaging is done, right, in a way that people understand this isn’t a choice between all or nothing. This isn’t about, can you have guns or no guns, it’s about can we implement the kinds of common sense regulations that will make our children safer and doesn’t change people’s ability to go hunting or sport shooting, or whatever it is, that’s really important to them. It’s about regulations that help us keep guns out of the hands of the most dangerous people. And that helps us keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people. So for me, it’s always a question about where can we meet in the middle? You know, Texas isn’t going to have laws, maybe like California, at least not anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps there to make it a safer place. And I think that’s what people are clamoring for.

Alex Wise  27:52  She’s the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Robyn Thomas. Robyn, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Robyn Thomas  28:01  Thanks for having me, Alex. It’s been great.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Clash, Nouvelle Vague and The Breeders, check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.