In his first public appearance since pleading guilty more than one year ago to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material, retired Gen. David Petraeus took a moment to warn against the dangers of the sorts of assault rifles used by the gunman who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub Sunday.
Americans need to “work together to figure out how it is that we can identify situations like this to the very best of our ability, and how we can make it more difficult for individuals to get what it is that they’ve used to kill so many fellow Americans,” Mr. Petraeus said in an event organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition in Washington on Monday.
Just two days before the Orlando shooting, a prestigious group of US military veterans launched a coalition to urge elected leaders “to do more to prevent gun tragedies.”
The group, called Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, includes on its advisory committee Petraeus, as well as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and longtime head of US Joint Special Operations Forces (the command responsible for Delta Force and the Navy SEALS), and Adm. Eric Olson, the first Navy SEAL ever to be promoted to a four-star rank.
Beyond the ranks of this group, a 2013 poll of military veterans found strong support for moves such as mandatory background checks on gun buyers (at 91 percent), and a ban on assault-style weapons (58 percent).
The Global Strategy Group poll found that, even as a plurality of the vets had a favorable view of the National Rifle Association (NRA), 85 percent agreed with the statement “we can protect responsible gun owners’ Second Amendment rights while still making it more difficult for criminals and other dangerous people to obtain guns.”
That view on background checks among veterans is similar to poll results for Americans at large on that issue. At the same time, Americans don't see that or other policies as a panacea for gun violence.
Some 33,000 Americans were killed in gun violence last year, and more than 84,000 were injured, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1969, more Americans have been killed on US soil as a result of gun violence than in all US wars combined.
In states where background checks are required for all gun sales, 46 percent fewer women are killed after being shot by boyfriends, husbands, or other people who want to hurt them, the coalition says.
And another group, the Violence Policy Center, reports that states with tough firearm laws have lower rates of gun-related deaths.
US military veterans say that they have seen first-hand the deadly impact of gun violence, and know what guns can do in the hands of responsible – and irresponsible – people.
“Policymakers should know that they’re not alone when they stand up to the NRA – they’ll have all of us behind them,” says Shawn VanDiver, a US Navy veteran who is a member of the coalition’s advisory committee. “My name might not carry much weight, but Gen. Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal, they do.”
At a time when the US military is the most respected group in the nation according to polls of American voters, Mr. VanDiver and others believe it is particularly important that they take a stand.
“The NRA can decry most other groups, that they’re hippies or soft on crime” – but not veterans, VanDiver says. What’s more, many NRA leaders like to claim a kinship with the US military. “The last time I checked, [NRA leader] Wayne La Pierre didn’t go to war with us.”
In addition to general gun violence, privately owned firearms account for about half of all suicide deaths among US military veterans.
Opponents of new gun-control measures argue, among other things, that criminals don’t obey laws on things like background checks, and that law-abiding gun carriers can prevent or stop crimes.
The military vets campaigning for tougher gun laws say that they are aware of these arguments. “But not being able to prevent every tragedy is not a reason not to try to prevent some of them,” VanDiver says.
“I spent 12 years in the military, and I’ve trained people for years and years and years on the application of violence and the use of weapons,” he adds. “I think that in America when we have an epidemic, a public health crisis, we address it.
“It worked for us with seat belts, with drunk driving, smoking – it has worked for us on tons and tons of stuff – but today we are not allowed to do that with guns, and I think that’s ridiculous.”