Guns: Thousands of Americans die, and yet we do nothing

Story highlights

  • Steve Israel: When an epidemic claims a small number of lives, America's politicians spring into action
  • He asks: How can we stand by when the toll from guns is enormous and much higher than in other wealthy nations?

Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, is the sixth-ranking member of the House Democratic Leadership and chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)One year ago, Ebola fears swept across the country after two patients with the virus died on U.S. soil. Politicians rushed to microphones and demanded a comprehensive and aggressive response by the federal government. Hearings were held, hospitals were reconfigured and immediate action was taken. It completely dominated the news.

Steve Israel
In the same year, more than 30,000 Americans lost their lives from gun violence, including more than 10,000 from homicides. And yet it was just another news story. Nothing was done.
Once again, there has been a mass shooting in America. As a country, we have been here too many times before. We go through the motions -- send our thoughts and prayers to the victims' families and vow to continue the conversation of enacting laws that will keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
    And that's where the coverage and the conversation end. Every time.
    We are the most advanced and powerful democracy in the world, yet we can't admit that we have a crisis in our country -- one that has witnessed 294 mass shootings in just 274 days this year.
    We spend trillions of dollars and rightfully devote entire government agencies to fighting terrorist attacks or infectious diseases, yet we can't stop more than 30,000 Americans from dying each year from gun violence.
    Between 2004 and 2013, 313 Americans were killed in international and domestic terrorist attacks -- during the same time 316,545 Americans died by firearms. The homicide rate in our country is seven times higher than in other high-income countries, driven largely by firearms.
    The numbers are staggering, but each represents a mother, father, son or daughter.
    Equally puzzling is the lack of progress knowing the number of Americans who support action. In a poll earlier this year by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, a large majority of Americans -- including gun owners -- said that they support stronger gun policies to stop the violence. More specifically, the poll shows strong support for background checks for all gun sales, with 85% of gun owners and 83% of nonowners favoring the policy. Yet, that's not reflected in the halls of Congress.
    Collectively, we have failed to amplify the voices of the families and communities that have been ravaged by gun violence. It seems that almost as quickly as the shooting stops, the gun lobby grabs the megaphone and proclaims that more guns would have prevented such tragedies, or now is not the time to talk about new gun legislation.
    When is the right time to talk about commonsense gun legislation?
    The time was right before Newtown, the time was right before Virginia Tech, the time was right before Columbine -- the time is now.
    We can no longer accept the ridiculous response that gun legislation means taking the guns out of the hands of responsible gun owners. This fear-mongering message was drawn up by the gun lobby and has no basis in fact.
    In reality, most responsible gun owners actually welcome commonsense legislation such as increased background checks. We want to prevent guns from getting into the hands of those who shouldn't have them, not take them away from law-abiding Americans.
    Unfortunately, the gun violence crisis in our country has become so dire that many feel powerless to solve it, and even those with the power to make a difference in Washington refuse to address it. This is nothing short of shameful. The same political leaders that send their thoughts and prayers to victims' families are the same ones who continuously vote down any sensible piece of gun legislation. Words are not enough, it is time for action.
    I am not alone in repeating my disdain for the way our political system continues to sweep this epidemic under the rug, but my Democratic colleagues in Congress cannot be the only voices calling for change. Until we the people begin to elect leaders brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby, we will continuously find ourselves here. And we have been here far too many times.
    Stand up, use your voice and demand action. Rarely do we have the opportunity to create change that will save thousands of American lives. Now is that time.