Editor's note: Daniel W. Webster is professor and director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
(CNN) -- At the sentencing of Jared Loughner, Mark Kelly, speaking on behalf of his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, called out politicians for their "feckless leadership" when it comes to addressing gun violence in America.
"We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced," Kelly said. "We have representatives who look at gun violence not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore."
Giffords was shot at close range in the head by Loughner at a constituency event outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011. Her survival and recovery are indeed miraculous, yet after many months of physical therapy, she struggles with her speech and walking. There were 18 other victims in the mass shooting, six of whom died.
Despite being rejected by the military because of a history of illicit drug use and being kicked out of a community college for repeated incidents of threatening and bizarre behavior, Loughner legally purchased a semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capable of holding 30 rounds of ammunition.
The politicians called out by Kelly and Giffords let the National Rifle Association bully them into thinking that gun owners don't want key flaws in our current gun laws fixed and that you can't win elections without the backing of the NRA. The millions of dollars the NRA spent in unsuccessful attempts to win close Senate races in swing states with high gun ownership rates -- Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin -- suggests that candidates can and do win despite strong NRA opposition.
The NRA portrays itself as an organization that speaks for and advocates for gun owners. The reality is that they speak for gun owners with the most extreme views and for the gun industry. A case in point is their opposition to requiring background checks for all firearm sales.
Under federal law and most states' law, only individuals who attempt to purchase firearms from licensed gun dealers must present a government-issued ID, sign a form stating that they do not fit any of the firearm prohibition categories and pass a criminal background check. But criminals and gun traffickers are given an easy alternative. They can simply purchase firearms from private sellers who do not require any of these checks.
Closing this absurd loophole would not be political suicide for politicians who fear losing the support of gun owners. A recent survey found that more than 80% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members want this loophole fixed. It seems likely that Giffords and Kelly, both gun owners, would be among this large majority favoring this reform.
Gun owners don't want dangerous people to have guns. So it seems doubtful that most gun owners think gun dealers should continue to be offered the special protections that Congress has bestowed on them, which reduce accountability and make it easier for criminals to get guns. When states require background checks for all handgun sales and have strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers, far fewer guns are diverted to criminals.
Politicians could also strengthen our gun laws so that, for example, individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes of violence (often pleaded down from felony charges) or those who have been convicted of multiple alcohol-related crimes are prohibited from possessing firearms. Studies have shown that these groups commit violent crimes at rates many times higher than population averages. Keeping guns from criminals and alcoholics isn't anti-gun -- it's pro-safety.
While nonfatal crime rates in the U.S. are comparable to other high-income countries, our homicide rate in the U.S. is seven times higher than that of other high-income countries, due in part to greater availability of handguns. We can reduce the homicide rate by restricting high-risk individuals from owning guns and eliminating legal protections that shady gun sellers and criminals exploit. Science and public opinion are in alignment.
It's time for elected officials to listen to the common sense reforms supported by the majority of gun owners and gun violence survivors such as Giffords.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel W. Webster.