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Every year in the United States, there are roughly 32,000 gun fatalities—19,000 by suicide and 11,000 by homicide. And there have been 74 school shootings since the Newtown, Conn., massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
Drawing on policies adopted by the American Bar Association since the assassination of President Kennedy, ABA President James R. Silkenat this year stepped up the association's advocacy to curb gun violence. Under his leadership, the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence's latest educational program took place Aug. 9 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston.
"Part of our mission as an association is to defend liberty and deliver justice," Silkenat said at the program, "Combatting Gun Violence: A Role for Lawyers and the Bar." Someone "who cannot go to the laundromat, the movie theater or school, without fear for their safety, is not truly free—even if he or she can vote or have the right to legal counsel," he said.
Massachusetts is "the gun violence prevention capital of America" because the state has the nation's most comprehensive gun laws, resulting in the third-lowest rate of handgun violence behind Hawaii and Rhode Island, said panelist John Rosenthal, a local real estate developer and founder of Stop Handgun Violence. In Massachusetts, he said, gun owners are required to lock their guns outside of their possession, and gun sellers need to be located in bona fide store locations, separate from their residences. Rosenthal added that such strict laws are possible even in a state with the headquarters of leading gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson.
Store-only gun sale laws are necessary, gun regulation proponents say, because federal criminal background checks are required only of transactions at established stores, not between private parties or at gun shows. Gun control advocates say this is a dangerous loophole in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, enacted in 1993 and named after White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt against President Reagan in 1981. Brady, who needed to use a wheelchair ever since, died last week as a result of lingering complications from the shooting.
Opponents of gun regulations cite the inconvenience to potential gun buyers of waiting periods associated with background checks, said Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal advocacy project of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He noted that James Brady once said, from his wheelchair, "I guess I'm paying for their convenience."
Lowy cited a well-known argument from the head of the National Rifle Association, that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." He noted that victims of the assassination attempt were protected with the guns of the Secret Service.
Thomas Tape of the American College of Physicians discussed the public-health perspective of gun violence. He cited statistics that having a gun in the home substantially increases the risk of suicide and homicide in the home, discrediting the argument that a firearm can protect individuals and families from violence. Tape's organization is a leading advocate for enabling physicians to speak with patients about the risks of keeping guns in the house and ways to reduce the risk of injury or death.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, however, recently upheld a Florida law that bans doctors from discussing gun safety with patients. Another panelist, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, called that divided decision "crazy" and "demonstrably wrong."
Still, Tribe and other panelists cautioned gun control advocates against fighting recent Supreme Court rulings that protect gun owner rights. Tribe noted that even though "the Constitution is not a suicide pact," the court decisions do allow for certain gun regulations and that the real challenge for proponents of gun regulations is a political one—to get laws enacted.
"It's not the Second Amendment that stands in the way" of reform," said David Clark, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence.
Panelists decried the fact that firearms, by law, are the only consumer products that are not regulated by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. "Toy guns and Teddy bears have more regulations than real guns," Rosenthal said.
Lowy encouraged lawyers to advocate with lawmakers for gun regulations, recommending that they sign up with an affiliated group of the Brady Campaign, Lawyers for a Safer America.