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Gun Violence in America: A Q&A With Ellen Alberding, President, Joyce Foundation

January 04, 2013

Ellen_alberding_headshotThe December shooting of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by a young man armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, two handguns, and several hundred rounds of ammunition sparked an explosion of outrage and immediate calls for Congress to do something about the seemingly unchecked and -regulated spread of guns in America. In the three weeks since the massacre, another four hundred and twenty-seven people in the U.S. have been killed by guns and the momentarily white-hot debate over gun control has taken a back seat to other policy issues.

Just before the New Year, PND checked in with Ellen Alberding, president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and an outspoken proponent of reasonable gun-control policies, about the scourge of gun violence in America and what philanthropy can do to address the issue.

Philanthropy News Digest: You wrote eloquently about the problem of gun violence in America after the January 2011 shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and thirteen others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded. Here we are, two years later, trying as a nation to come to terms with another horrific mass shooting, and nothing has changed. Does that surprise you?

Ellen Alberding: There's no question that gun violence prevention is one of the most challenging public policy issues facing our nation. And for too long, that has been an excuse for inaction. But following the recent tragedy in Newtown, our country seems to be done with excuses and is demanding action, in the form of stronger gun laws that can help prevent further carnage.

More than 400,000 people have signed a White House petition asking for action and 900,000 citizens have joined over 800 mayors in cities across the country to demand a plan from Washington to reduce the toll of gun violence. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, the response from so many other groups -- nonprofits, law enforcement, education groups -- has been encouraging as well.

This time is different. And we must demand a different outcome.

PND: What do you say to people who argue that gun violence in the U.S. cannot be prevented, that "bad" people who want to hurt or kill other people will always be able to get guns?

EA: Gun violence is preventable. The solution is multi-faceted and includes smart law enforcement strategies, proven community-based interventions, and more funding for mental health services. It also must include stronger gun laws.

Easy access to guns makes all the difference. Americans are not more violent than people of other nations. Rather, study after study by researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere have shown that easy access to guns is the difference between life and death -- in violent disputes, in suicides, in accidents. Simply put, where there are more guns, there are more deaths.

Research shows that specific policies can help limit access to guns by dangerous people. We know, for example, that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has blocked more than 1.9 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, the seriously mentally ill, drug abusers, and other people prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms. Currently, a loophole in the law allows 40 percent of gun sales to occur with no background check. Bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines will stop shooters from firing dozens of rounds -- killing and injuring more people -- before pausing to reload. And current state gun dealer regulations have proven effective in reducing illegal gun trafficking.

These policies enjoy broad public support. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support stronger gun laws. In fact, 86 percent of Americans support a measure requiring all gun buyers to pass a criminal background check, and 63 percent support banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

PND: With the country again embroiled in a debate over gun violence and gun control, do you believe public health considerations should trump Second Amendment considerations in that debate?

EA: Reducing the toll of gun violence does not require a choice between public health and the Second Amendment. Two recent United States Supreme Court decisions, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, do not preclude commonsense gun laws. In District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited….[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

In fact, since the Heller decision, lower courts across the nation have found a wide range of firearms law constitutional.

PND: In your 2011 op-ed for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, you reminded readers that gun-violence prevention had once been on philanthropy's agenda. What caused it to fall off?

EA: There's no question that philanthropy needs to do more, and I believe it will. Following that op-ed in response to the January 2011 Tucson shooting, I received a lot of positive feedback and interest from others who were curious about becoming involved. Joyce and several other grantmakers joined forces to create the Fund for a Safer Future, and together we've awarded more than $14 million to groups working to promote regulation and legislation that makes a difference. More recently, we created the Fund for a Safer Future - 2013 Action Fund, a 501(c)(3) charity to support organizations working for stronger gun laws.

PND: What else can philanthropy do to address the issue of gun violence in America?

EA: Foundations have an opportunity to cut through the political back and forth, roll up our sleeves, and focus on solutions. We have the freedom to invest in long-term, nonpartisan solutions for complicated issues like reducing gun violence. Let's keep up the momentum for meaningful change, support our grantees and partners as they work overtime to get something done, and stay committed to reducing gun violence even as the nation and media shift their focus.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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