January 14, 2011

Philanthropy Must Challenge the Idea That Gun Violence Can’t Be Stopped

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Messages and candles are placed at a makeshift memorial for those killed and wounded during an attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.

We see this latest tragedy and ask, How could this happen? How could it not happen, when we systematically make it easier for angry and troubled people to get ever-more-powerful guns, and harder for the police and public-health people to stop the mayhem?

Those words appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy 2007, in the days after the Virginia Tech massacre. Three and a half years later, our nation’s gun laws have gotten weaker, the gun lobby has become emboldened, and the toll of deaths and injuries caused by firearms has grown. With few exceptions, our leaders continue to sit on the sidelines.

Now, once again, we mourn the victims of a senseless shooting.

Over the past decade, I have watched gun-violence prevention fade from philanthropy’s agenda. Saturday’s events offer a startling example of what that trend means for all of us who work in philanthropy.

The Tucson shooting makes clear that gun violence threatens not just public health and public safety; it threatens the core of our democracy. Our democratic system depends on an open discussion of ideas, even when the parties to that discussion disagree. Threats of violence, and the easy opportunity to act on those threats, create a chilling effect on public discourse that undermines the democratic process, deters people from running for public office, and ultimately imperils our progress on any public issue.

I agree with President Obama that we must work to return civility to our public discourse. And as the president said in his memorial speech in Tucson, “We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.”

Let’s start by challenging the assumption that there’s no way to stop gun violence. Gun violence in the United States is not a constitutionally derived inevitability. Gun violence, whether directed at a member of Congress or a child walking home from school, happens because our elected officials have made a series of deliberate policy judgments that guns should be easy to buy, sell, and carry by nearly anyone, anywhere, any time.

In this case, those policy judgments enabled the suspected Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, to buy a Glock semi-automatic pistol and 33-round ammunition magazine, conceal that gun and ammunition as he traveled to a public event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and fire more than 30 rounds before pausing to reload.

If it’s not obvious that gun policy matters, consider that Mr. Loughner’s high-capacity ammunition magazine was illegal in the United States until 2004, when Congress allowed the ban to expire. As The Wall Street Journal explains, the federal assault-weapons ban “barred dealers from selling magazines holding more than 10 rounds.” A federal law-enforcement official said Mr. Loughner used a magazine with about three times that capacity. “Without that extended magazine, you would not have seen the body count as high,” the official said.

What’s more, until just last year, Mr. Loughner would have at least been required to apply for and obtain a permit from the Arizona Department of Public Safety before he could legally have carried a gun, but the Arizona legislature abolished the permit requirement. So Mr. Loughner was easily able to buy and carry a gun despite his history of mental-health issues, drug use, suspension from school, and rejection by the U.S. Army.

Arizona is only the latest example of the trend toward relaxed rules on carrying guns in public places. Laws in several states now allow concealed guns in bars, places of worship, and public parks.

Sadly, past experience tells us that eventually the shock of last weekend’s events will fade from the headlines. But what will not fade is the relentless toll of gun violence: Every day in the United States, an average of 34 people are murdered with guns. Nearly 50 more are killed in gun accidents and suicides. And 183 more are injured by gunfire. Every day.

In philanthropy we have the ability to gather great minds to tackle tough issues by harnessing our resources, setting measurable goals, and carrying out a sound strategy. I have seen the nonprofit world’s great achievements in areas as diverse as scientific research, early-childhood education, public health, and human rights.

It is time for us to bring our collective leadership together to push for reasonable public policies that protect our citizens and our democracy from the scourge of gun violence.

Each one of us must challenge the assumption, best stated in 2009 by Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, that “the guys with the guns make the rules.” If this is true, it is a direct threat to our democratic process.

Foundations can play an important role in turning this issue around. Our resources can help reduce the financial imbalance that allows one side to overwhelm the debate on even the most modest policy changes. Putting our money into research on ways to prevent gun violence, analysis of the public policies that make the most difference, and advocacy efforts that mobilize the public can help ensure a balanced discussion about how our society should handle guns.

We’re ready to do our part and share our expertise after many years of focusing on this issue in our own grant making. Now we need more hands to take on this issue—and to promote the kind of democracy that inspired Representative Giffords to invite her constituents to share their concerns at her “Congress on Your Corner” event.

Ellen S. Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation, in Chicago.