December 26, 2012

We Can’t Pass Up This Chance to End Violence

After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and the tragic 2011 Tucson shootings that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, I hoped philanthropy would join forces with other Americans to finally take meaningful action to protect Americans from gun violence.

Both times we failed to make change happen.

This time is different. And we must demand a different outcome.

The murders in Newtown awoke our nation to the urgency of acting now to put in place reasonable gun laws to protect our citizens from further carnage.

At least 400,000 Americans have signed a petition to the White House asking for action, while 800,000 citizens have joined more than 800 mayors to demand a plan from the president and U.S. Congress.

President Obama himself has said, “This time, the words need to lead to action.”

Conventional wisdom and Beltway pundits have always said that nothing can be done in Washington and that Americans won’t support stronger gun laws. For a long time, this may have appeared to be true.

But we know from recent polls that the majority of Americans do support such laws.

Even before Newtown, 86 percent of adults expressed support for criminal background checks for all gun buyers, and 87 percent of gun owners share this opinion. Even 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support criminal background checks for all gun sales. Sixty-three percent of Americans support banning assault weapons and large magazine clips.

We also know that, despite the rhetoric, it is entirely clear that easy access to guns makes all the difference.

America suffers more than 30,000 gun deaths every year. That is more per capita than any other developed country. Research published by Harvard University in 2011 found that for children ages 5 to 14 the gun homicide rate in the U.S. was 13 times higher than in other comparable countries.

But Americans are not more violent than people of other nations. Rather, study after study by researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere have shown that easy access to guns is the difference between life and death—in violent disputes, in suicides, in accidents.

Simply put, where there are more guns, there are more deaths. Despite this, we still have not acted.

Why not?

Yes, the causes of violence are complex. The solutions will be as well. Yes, the politics are, and always have been, difficult. So people need to put aside other interests and past differences to agree on key assumptions about what can make a difference.

We have to do this now or risk losing the opportunity for good.

After spending considerable time financing groups that work to reduce gun violence, my colleagues at the Joyce Foundation and I believe that a comprehensive approach is required, including increased government spending for law enforcement, improving access to mental-health services for all who need help, and a greater emphasis on research to understand the policies and practices that are most effective at preventing gun violence.

We must also strengthen the current federal background-check system to limit easy gun access by felons, domestic abusers, and other people prohibited by law from possessing firearms.

We should start by requiring a background check on anyone seeking to purchase a gun.

What’s more, the federal government must ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire dozens of bullets without stopping to reload.

The grief and outrage over Newtown have focused us as never before on the extent to which Americans have allowed lobbyists for special interests to dominate decisions in our capitol and in our statehouses.

As the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote last week, “The gun lobby and the weapons merchants are counting on our notoriously short attention span. ... The longer we wait, the less likely we are to act.”

That’s why everyone in the nonprofit world must keep up the pressure over the next few months to make our views known and keep up the momentum. Key players—doctors, police officers, and members of the clergy—have already spoken out strongly.

Over 4 million teachers represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are calling for action. Americans are demanding change, and they will hold elected officials accountable to stand up to the gun lobby and support stronger laws.

Philanthropy can play a critical role. We can keep up the pressure to do the right thing. We can support the organizations working overtime to bring about meaningful action. We can encourage our colleagues, grantees, and others to participate. We can send the message that this time we will not lose interest when Sandy Hook begins to fade from the headlines.

Following the Giffords shooting, Joyce and several other grant makers joined forces to create the Fund for a Safer Future, and together they’ve awarded more than $14-million to groups working to promote regulation and legislation that makes a difference. Now these nonprofit organizations are seeing their capacities tested as they work to capture and sustain the momentum with resources that represent a small fraction of spending by pro-gun groups determined to keep our gun laws weak.

“The time is always ripe to do what is right,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham jail cell.

It’s time for everyone in philanthropy to do what’s right and participate in a solution.

Ellen S. Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation, one of the foundations that created the Fund for a Safer Future—2013 Action Fund to support organizations that work to strengthen gun laws.