Ben Downing: Gun Laws And Common Sense

Oct 24, 2017

My Dad had been district attorney for less than 2 years when Wayne Lo opened fire on Simon’s Rock campus the night of December 14, 1992. He killed one fellow student, one professor and injured 4 others before his semi-automatic rifle jammed.

Twenty years, to the day, later, our nation watched in horror as 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and 6 adults, were gunned down by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

In between, there was Columbine, San Bernadino, Fort Hood and Virginia Tech. Since Sandy Hook, there was Orlando and now, Las Vegas.

It didn’t start with Wayne Lo, it won’t end with Las Vegas, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to shrug our collective shoulders and say, irresponsibly, “what can you do?” or callously, “that's the price for freedom.” In no other public policy debate do responsible parties see a wrong and refuse to try to right it. And yet, that seems to be where we land every time we attempt to have a debate about gun safety and violence. Surely, some states can, have and will act, but this is a national problem that requires a national solution.

Others have and will do a better job of pointing out the concrete steps every level of government can and should take. Reinstating the federal assault weapons ban, requiring background checks, repealing the federal ban on gun crime research are all sensible steps that will elicit some version of the same response. Why restrict the freedom of law abiding gun owners? That is a legitimate question. The legal answer is simple, we regulate & restrict certain freedoms for the good of all. Speed limits, etc.

But maybe more importantly now, the answer to that question is best posed as a question in reply -- What about the freedom and the right to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness of each and every victim, living and dead, of the Las Vegas massacre? What about the freedom to enter a classroom in Connecticut or Colorado or Virginia have your only fear be if you’ll have the answer to a teacher's question? What about the freedom to enjoy a night out in Orlando?

Surely we can accommodate both. We cannot continue to shrug our shoulders and do nothing.

Our inability to respond to these massacres suggests our nation is more divided than ever. My experience has taught me the opposite. I represented a district with cities & small towns. A district where concerns about gangs and guns were paramount in one neighborhood and where a short drive away responsible gun owners hunted and competed for sport. It was never my experience that one group thought the other’s concerns were illegitimate. If anything, what holds those groups back from finding more common ground is a political debate detached from reality.

According to a Pew Center poll on gun policy, 52% of Americans say gun laws should be stricter than they are today. Further 89% or close to nine-in-ten Americans favor preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. “Nearly as many favor requiring background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows (84%) and barring gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists (83%).” These are shockingly supportive numbers - so why can’t we get anything done to address these issues? Where is the political will for something the public clearly supports?

We will never know what talent was lost that night in Great Barrington, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Las Vegas or too many nights in too many towns across America. But I do know, each time one of these massacres takes place without any real, national action, a bit of who we are as a country withers and weakens. I hope with every fiber of my being we have not lost the ability to respond. Our politics, our society, has to be better than symbolic gestures that amount to a more pleasant and acceptable shrug of the shoulders. We are better than that. We have to be.

Ben Downing Represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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