By Niki Tsongas and Peter J. Koutoujian
In the days of overwhelming grief and shock that followed the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a man from Middlesex County, Massachusetts wrote to his Congresswoman with a simple request: seek change. He was not unique in his message; many others had sent similar letters demanding action to prevent gun violence. But this particular correspondence was more emotionally raw, more poignant because he was the family member of a Newtown victim.
Undoubtedly, and unfortunately, this man was not the only American family member in recent memory to write a letter like this to an elected official. The past few years have seen every corner of America deeply impacted by gun violence: at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Arizona. And calls to action have come -- and gone -- after each tragedy.
Sandy Hook was an exclamation point on this recent string of high-profile incidents. It rocked our national conscience and predictably raised compelling but familiar questions about the availability of violent weapons in our society.
Elected officials at every level of government, from both sides of the aisle acknowledged it was time to have a long overdue conversation about the accessibility of high capacity weapons and ammunition in our country and about the culture of violence we live in.
But as we move further away from the events in Newtown, the national conversation about gun violence prevention has turned into a deluge of partisan talking points aimed at watering down legislation.
As the top law enforcement official in Middlesex County and the Member of Congress for the Third Congressional District, we believe it is simply not an option to allow this discussion to again become stagnant or to be silenced by special interests. There remains opportunity to seek change and work together across all levels of government to keep our schools, our movie theaters, our shopping malls, our houses of worship, and our neighborhoods safe. It would be shameful to allow this moment to pass.
To be clear, we believe that law abiding citizens have a constitutional right to own firearms, a right clearly stated in the Second Amendment and repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. Gun violence prevention legislation is not intended to limit our right to bear arms, but rather to protect law enforcement and civilians.
The majority of gun owners and members of national gun organizations are responsible citizens who agree with commonsense laws to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people. In fact, recent polling done by the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 82 percent of gun owners -- including 74 percent of National Rifle Association members -- support requiring criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun.
Americans want to continue this discussion and more importantly, resolve it. It is not too late for the dialogue to result in action. On a macro and micro level, we can have real, meaningful change.
The United States Senate will be putting forth gun violence prevention legislation in the coming weeks and we urge the House of Representatives to follow similar action. Both chambers must be allowed to vote on this issue. The American people deserve to have a matter of such importance brought before their elected representatives.
On the national level, the entire Massachusetts Congressional Delegation pledged unanimous support for universal gun background checks. Our laws should be able to reasonably control gun manufacturing, sale, and usage to ensure that firearms are used safely and responsibly and universal background checks are vital to achieving that goal.
In Massachusetts, community efforts such as gun buy-back programs are the type of direct actions we can take to combat violence on our streets. Inside our correctional institutions, inmate programming directly addresses violence prevention, mental health and other risk factors that lead to violent crime. And in the coming months we will continue to reach out to local officials to discuss what more can be done on a community level.
In addition to these practical actions, our nation must engage in renewed efforts to address mental health funding and take steps to help communities identify and treat those in need. This must be part of any comprehensive approach to curbing gun violence.
It is time we return to the heart of the matter -- public safety -- and prevent the dialogue from being heated to the point of evaporation. We must continue the discussion on how to curb gun violence; we must continue to seek change.