austin shooting scene 2
Number of people killed by guns in US continues to rise
02:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Sen. Ben Ray Luján represents New Mexico. John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 
Sen. Ben Ray Luján
John Feinblatt

In recent months, Americans have received a string of horrific reminders that even as Covid deaths fall, one of our nation’s deadliest public health emergencies rages on: gun violence.

Eight people shot and killed in Atlanta. Ten people murdered in a mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. Eight more massacred at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis. Nine more killed in San Jose.

Our hearts are with the families and friends left behind by these tragedies, who are now part of a club no one wants to join: the millions of people in this country whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. And this club has grown even faster than normal over the last year.

Yes, as America went into lockdown, we saw fewer high-profile mass shootings. But what many people don’t know is this: Almost 4,000 more Americans were killed in gun homicides or non-suicide-related shootings in 2020, as compared to 2019. And while the data is still being analyzed, it will undoubtedly show that Black communities bore the heaviest burden, given that Black Americans are 10 times more likely than White Americans to die by gun homicide.

There are many possible reasons for this increase. For starters, an estimated 22 million guns were sold in 2020 according to an analysis by The Trace – nearly 9 million more than in 2019. At the same time, the risk factors that lead to gun violence were also on the upswing – and the results were predictable. As shelter-in-place orders went into effect during the first months of the pandemic, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline ticked up. Simultaneously, underserved neighborhoods lost in-person schooling, social services, homes, and jobs, and gun homicides increased alarmingly across major US cities. And as far-right extremists fought to dismantle both Covid restrictions and the election results, we have seen a rise in armed intimidation, most notably in the deadly attack at the US Capitol.

It all adds up to this: While coronavirus has killed, at minimum, 600,000 Americans, increased gun violence is another deadly byproduct of the pandemic – and the most effective remedy is common-sense laws. The US House has already done its part by passing a package of gun safety bills that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales. Now it’s time for the Senate to step up and take swift action to keep guns from falling into dangerous hands.

The need to strengthen our background check laws is painfully obvious. Right now, only federally licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks. Private, unlicensed sellers – even those who sell guns frequently – are not required to do so. This means that thousands upon thousands of gun sales, including at gun shows and between strangers who meet online, are not subject to a background check

Americans were reminded of just how deadly this loophole can be in August 2019, when a gunman went on a mass shooting spree in Odessa and Midland, Texas, murdering seven people and injuring 17 more. The shooter, who had a history of criminal activity and mental illness, tried to buy a gun from a licensed seller back in 2014, but was blocked because he failed a background check. Tragically, this was just a minor inconvenience. Under our current law, the shooter was able to easily – and legally – obtain an assault weapon from a private seller.

Twenty-one states – including New Mexico – and Washington, DC, have stepped up and passed their own laws requiring background checks on all handgun sales. But that alone is not enough, because it’s all too easy for guns from states with weak laws to flow into states with strong laws. In New Mexico, for instance, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recovered nearly 2,500 crime guns that originated in other states between 2015 and 2019, the majority of which came from states without a background check law. Put simply, this is a nationwide problem that requires a nationwide solution.

As Senators debate whether to make gun safety a priority, they should consider the human cost of inaction. In the 25 years since Congress last passed major gun safety legislation, more than 800,000 Americans have been shot and killed.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    So, it should come as no surprise that common-sense gun safety legislation has never been more popular. According to an April poll by Quinnipiac University, 89 percent of voters – including 84 percent of Republicans – support requiring background checks on all gun sales.

    The takeaway is clear: It’s time for the federal government to do everything possible to protect the American people from gun violence. Because when it comes to this crisis, there is no vaccine on the horizon – what we need right now are brave leaders and common-sense laws.