When background checks are given a chance, they work

Barbara, 55, was gunned down in 1992 by her estranged husband. She never witnessed the birth of her grandchildren. But she is present in the work of her sister, Joan Peterson, who strives tirelessly to prevent another family from suffering the same kind of loss.

Laramuin, 20, was murdered by a 16-year-old with a gun in 1993. Laramuin is present too, in the work of Mary Johnson, the mother who buried him. Over the last 18 years, Mary has transformed her grief and anger into compassion, founding the organization From Death to Life.

Joan, Mary and many other victims of gun violence stood with fellow victim Omar Samaha, who lost his sister at Virginia Tech, as they rang a bell in memory of their loved ones in Minneapolis earlier this month. At the Mayors Against Illegal Guns event, victims, mayors and police chiefs urged policymakers to take action to save lives:

Fix the gun checks. Ninety percent of Americans and 90 percent of gun owners support fixing the gaps in the national check system.

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Close the loopholes. Gun checks for all gun sales are supported by 86 percent of Americans, including 81 percent of gun owners.

Fully implement a gun check system, which, even in its current porous form, has stopped 1.8 million gun sales to prohibited buyers and has been demonstrated to disrupt illegal gun supply chains.

Only in this country is it a courageous act to point out that people like Jared Loughner, charged with the Arizona shootings last January, never should have been able to buy a gun in the first place.

We are up against a rich gun lobby with a worldview that says gun violence can't be prevented. The real problem, it claims, is a failure to find the right people to blame and a failure to sell enough guns.

Fortunately, only a small percentage of gun owners have been convinced, in the absence of any evidence, that gun lobby executives are protecting the little guy from government -- instead of protecting the $10 billion firearms industry from unprofitability.

Policymakers' job is to solve problems. President Obama has made an effort to do his job by inviting the National Rifle Association to the table to discuss ways to prevent further gun violence. But the NRA leaders have refused, fully aware that the group would lose its reason for existing if it actually tried to solve a problem.

Better to hamper the release of facts about the scope of the problem: In the NRA's latest success, a new rule requires that researchers using Centers for Disease Control funding must inform the NRA if they are conducting research on firearms.

We all pay for this political dysfunction on gun policy. Nationally, gun deaths and injuries in 2005 incurred $30 billion in health care and lost-work costs. In Minnesota alone, those costs were more than $350 million. And that is not counting the costs of law enforcement and prisons.

As David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health points out, "I can predict with complete confidence that in the next decade, the United States will have many more homicides than the other high-income democracies, and many more mass shootings. ... in 2003, the U.S. homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher."

He points out that all these countries have the same violent video games, bullying in schools, oppressed minorities, mentally ill people and similar rates of non-firearm crime and violence. What is the difference?

"These other countries have stricter gun policies than the United States. And when disaster happens, they typically respond."

Arizona is like a laboratory for testing the NRA's worldview. The art of blaming has been highly developed. Gun sales are robust. Anybody can carry a handgun with no permit. Background checks for gun sales are limited to a neglected federal system that failed to catch the drug abuse problems of Jared Loughner. So if the NRA approach made sense, Arizona should be the safest place on earth. But despite a similar population size, it has more gun murders every year than all of Minnesota's gun deaths put together -- 354 murders, out of 951 total gun deaths in 2007.

Our elected officials owe us policy action on the scourge of gun violence. Background checks work when they are actually implemented. Fix them.


Heather Martens is executive director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence. She has been active in gun violence prevention since 2003.