I GREW up with guns. My dad was raised in Montana, a war veteran and an avid hunter. We lived in what was then rural King County. A devoted fan of the TV show “Bonanza,” I sometimes would set out for the day on my pony. My lunch and BB gun lashed to the saddle, I ensured the safety of the Issaquah woods.
My dad got me my first shotgun at age 10. I sat on the counter of Warshall’s Sporting Goods, feet dangling as they figured out how to cut down the stock.
To many today, this seems unthinkable. But with that gun came lessons — key instruction about safely using, cleaning and storing any gun. If anyone in our family ignored those lessons, the consequences were swift and sure. The war and hunting taught my dad a certainty that he passed on to us: Guns are deadly. They must always be treated accordingly.
Too many are not heeding that simple truth today. Each day, throughout our country, lives are taken and families are shattered by gunfire. Too many people are dying. Too many guns are getting in the wrong hands — children, criminals, the mentally ill and those intent on harming others.
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No single law and no one approach will change the course of violence. It requires efforts from all corners, and on many fronts.
Gun violence is not just a law-enforcement matter, it is a public-health issue. We must do a better job educating people about guns and gun safety, we must examine and change the prevalence of violence in our culture, and we must better diagnose and treat mental illness.
But we also need common-sense changes to our gun laws. The laws we have and the strategies we are using are not enough.
Those who oppose additional gun laws frequently say, “Just use the laws already on the books.” In Western Washington, we are already doing that. As U.S. Attorney, I have made stemming the illegal flow and use of guns a key priority. Prosecutors in my office and our law-enforcement partners work hard to get guns out of the wrong hands and off the streets. We have targeted illegal gun-show sales, felons possessing and trafficking guns, and licensed gun dealers who fail to follow the rules.
We have used undercover officers posing as “fences” to buy stolen guns from criminals. We have undertaken hot-spot initiatives in White Center and the Kent Valley. When gun deaths spiked in Seattle last year, we increased efforts to ensure armed felons were taken off the street to face serious federal time.
The efforts have shown results. In Western Washington, the prosecution of illegal gun possession is up 45 percent, one of the largest increases in the nation. However, it is not enough. We also must be proactive about making sure dangerous weapons don’t get on the streets in the first place.
I stand with law-enforcement professionals, from prosecutors to police officers, and support the President Obama’s call for a ban on assault weapons. I have shot such weapons. There is no question their precision and power set them apart from other guns. But that is also what makes them more dangerous.
These high-capacity, high-powered guns are not hunting weapons. They were designed for a central purpose: killing people. As the Aurora, Colo., and Newtown., Conn., tragedies showed, they are efficient and deadly weapons.
With every right comes obligations and limitations. Civilians cannot own a whole range of military weapons and technology. Military assault weapons should also face restrictions.
As a prosecutor, I also know background checks can stop the wrong people from getting guns. Background checks have blocked almost 2 million criminals and other prohibited people from purchasing guns at licensed firearm dealers. But only licensed dealers have to do background checks.
The tens of thousands of guns sold through private sales do not require background checks. Our investigation of sales at gun shows revealed professional dealers masquerading as hobbyists. They bought hundreds of guns from licensed sellers and then quickly turned around and sold those same weapons at gun shows.
For these private sales, there were no questions, no paperwork, and no record of the sales. (One gun sold like this was used weeks later to kill Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton.) We need universal background checks for all gun purchasers, whether that purchase is from a licensed dealer or through a private sale.
Successfully reducing gun violence requires both incentives that encourage responsible steps, and consequences for not taking them. It requires not just using the tools we have, but examining what more can be done. We also must find areas of common ground. This cannot become a debate about gun safety versus gun rights. That is a false choice.
The reality is gun ownership is protected by the Constitution, woven into the fabric of our country and is not going away. At the same time, responsible gun owners know what my dad taught me: Guns are deadly weapons and must be treated accordingly. Ultimately, reducing gun violence requires all of us to encourage, foster and demand safe and sensible gun use.
Jenny A. Durkan is U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington.