Like opioids, gun violence is a bipartisan problem

At a legislative town hall held in Camas last Saturday morning, Republican Sen. Ann Rivers said something that seemed to resonate with many people in the room: The issue of opioid addiction is a bipartisan issue because, as Rivers noted, “there is no one in the Legislature who doesn’t have a close friend, family member or someone they know who has been impacted by this.”

The members of the Washington State Legislature, she said, have been able to look past political differences to address the opioid problem.

It is a shame that our politicians cannot do the same when it comes to the issue of gun violence.

Don’t think of guns as part of a bipartisan, public health problem? That’s probably because the National Rifle Association killed any meaningful research on gun-related deaths and injuries decades ago.

But, times are changing. In 2016, a group of 141 medical and health organizations, including the American Medical Association, representing more than one million health professionals across the United States, pushed Congress to lift a 20-year barrier on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that prohibited studying gun violence.

“The medical and public health communities continue to believe gun violence, which claims an average of 91 American lives daily, is a serious public health threat that must be handled with urgency,” Dr. Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America, said in a 2016 statement regarding the letter to Congress.

Instead of coming together over gun violence in the way they’ve come together over opioid addiction, the majority of our Republican legislators seem to go above and beyond to distract from questions about gun control. They twist the truth, laugh off questions from constituents, blame everything but the guns and sometimes seem desperate to move on to another topic.

Sen. Rivers, along with her fellow Republican lawmaker, Rep. Brandon Vick, displayed many of these behaviors at the Saturday town hall in Camas.

Both lawmakers were quick to point out that Washington already has some great gun control laws on the books. And yet, both Rivers and Vick failed to mention that they had little to do with these laws. In fact, in February, both voted against an ultimately successful bill banning the sale and possession of bump stocks — the same device, which helps semiautomatic weapons fire more rapidly, that a mass shooter used when he killed 58 people at a Las Vegas concert in 2017.

Sen. Rivers passed it all off as more of a mental health problem. She said she’d talked to peers in Denmark and Sweden who told her the U.S.’s problem with gun violence isn’t the overwhelming number of guns we own — Americans have the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, but only about 30 percent of us actually own guns — but the fact that our mental health system is abysmal. What Sen. Rivers failed to mention, aside from the fact that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators, is that Denmark and Sweden also have universal health care systems and offer free mental health services to their citizens. Does she want the U.S. to move toward a single-payer system like Denmark and Sweden? Doubtful, but you never know what politicians will say to divert attention from the guns.

After all, Sen. Rivers also proclaimed last weekend that “we lose more children every year to distracted driving accidents than we have lost in the history of the United States to gun violence.” Then she promoted her distracted driving legislation — a bill that is indeed a positive step toward ending distracted driving deaths, but not a substitute for addressing gun violence.

As it turns out, Rivers’ statement was completely false. We have lost far more children to gun violence in this country than we lose to distracted driving each year. Here are the numbers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and CDC:

In 2016, in the U.S., 3,450 adults and children lost their lives to distracted driving crashes. OK, that’s horrible, but what about gun violence? Between 1999 and 2016, at least 26,000 children 18 and younger were killed by gunfire in the U.S. Firearm injuries are currently the third leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 17 in our country, with seven children dying every day from firearm injuries.

Answering with half-truths and misleading numbers is no longer an acceptable means of addressing an issue that has killed more than 26,000 of our nation’s youth in less than two decades.

Like the opioid crisis, gun violence affects all of us. It is a public health crisis not seen in other developed nations, and voters deserve leaders who will treat it in the bipartisan manner it demands.