In Congress, my wife, Gabby Giffords, represented Tombstone, Arizona. It’s the town that’s too tough to die, a symbol of American grit and the Western ethos of gun ownership. In popular folklore, the OK Corral evokes images of armed cowboys and dead villains. Justice, some of our favorite tales suggest, was sought from the barrel of a gun.
But if current American attitudes about guns derive from our origins as a frontier nation, then we must look at how places like Tombstone policed firearms and prevented gun violence. This is especially true in the wake of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC.
You might be surprised by what you find about the history of US gun laws. Far from the “live-by-the-gun, die-by-the-gun” way of life portrayed in movies, the Western tradition of gun ownership was tightly braided with similarly Western policies to prevent gun violence.
Take a look at the history books, and you’ll learn that Tombstone legislators of the late nineteenth century worked to improve public safety by enacting comparatively strict gun safety laws. In 1881, Tombstone made it illegal to carry weapons in public. Residents could keep arms at home; travelers passing through had to check their guns with the marshal.
Like the early citizens of Tombstone, Gabby and I are gun owners and believers in the Second Amendment. While we would never re-legislate the approach that Tombstone took, we know we can keep our families safe from gun violence while allowing us to exercise our constitutional rights. We appreciate guns for the protection they provide – and we know the dangers presented by letting guns get into the hands of dangerous people.
For years, Gabby and I watched the gun-violence prevention debate play out in acrid newspaper op-eds and outlandish TV campaign ads. We didn’t feel that our views as moderates and gun owners were represented.
After mass shootings in Tucson; in Aurora, Colo.; in Oak Creek, Wis.; in Newtown, Conn. – and now we sadly add the Navy Yard to that list – we knew it was time to bring a new voice to the gun safety debate. In January, we founded Americans for Responsible Solutions to prevent gun violence. We encourage politicians to back broadly accepted ideas – such as expanding background checks – that address gun violence and still protect gun owners. The two aims are not mutually exclusive.
We also ask every American to take another look at the issue, one that’s inclusive of the nation’s diverse experiences with firearms. We ask that you walk in Gabby’s shoes and help forge a new middle ground where gun owners and non-gun owners can walk – and calmly talk – together.
When it comes to guns, this country sometimes looks like two Americas: one where owning guns is as common and unremarkable as using cell phones for texting; and the other, where guns are identified with crime and tragedy. But neither of these portraits depicts how Gabby and I have experienced gun ownership and gun violence.
That’s why we are working with hundreds of thousands of Americans to forge a new middle ground in the gun debate – asking them to contact elected officials and sign a petition to pass expanded background checks in Congress. We know that as Americans we can put ourselves in each other’s shoes and seek common solutions that take into account diverse experiences.
Here’s what a map of this middle ground would look like: People who do not own guns would understand that law-abiding citizens have a constitutional right in this country to possess them. There are roughly 300 million guns in America. They’re not going away. Gun ownership is as ingrained in American tradition as apple pie and baseball.
People who do own guns would stand up and tell lawmakers that Second Amendment rights are not the strongest when gun laws are the weakest – but the opposite. Responsible gun owners should feel outraged when criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can get their hands on guns and use them to harm children and families. Popular, sensible gun safety laws keep everyone safer and protect gun rights.
Too often, gun safety and gun rights are pitted against each other because special interests on either side have the incentive not to compromise, but to yell louder. Most Americans want consensus and civility. This might seem like a pipe dream, but Gabby and I have witnessed the walking of this middle ground all over America.
In early July we embarked on a seven-state, seven-day Rights and Responsibilities Tour to hear from a diverse group of Americans – gun owners and non-gun owners, Republicans and Democrats – who reject the prevailing wisdom among Beltway pundits that the gun lobby is too powerful, that Americans don’t agree on this issue, and that it’s a lost cause.
Nonsense. When Gabby and I visited places like Alaska and North Carolina, whether at shooting ranges or around kitchen tables, we only encountered people who supported Gabby’s middle-road approach. We witnessed firsthand what repeated polling has shown: While Congress may be divided on the issue of expanded background checks, Americans simply aren’t. Even in Arizona, 78 percent of gun owners support expanding background checks to all gun sales. Yet Congress was not able to pass an expanded background-check bill this year.
More than 130 years ago, the Tombstone town council passed far-reaching measures to keep citizens safe. Today, we would merely expand background checks and empower law enforcement to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people while respecting the rights of the responsible. I hope Congress and state legislators will walk in Gabby’s shoes, like hundreds of thousands of Americans have, to forge a reasonable path to reduce gun violence. It’s the only way to keep America safe.
Capt. Mark Kelly and his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, are co-founders of the gun violence prevention organization Americans for Responsible Solutions. Kelly is a retired NASA space shuttle commander and Navy combat pilot.
Readers: This is one of a new series by guest writers who offer ways to soften many of the polarizing debates over issues that sharply divide people. Are you working with others who don’t share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at email@example.com.
Editor's Note: The original version of this commentary incorrectly identified the state where the Oak Creek, Wisc., shooting took place.