President's Message

ABA fosters discussion on reasonable, enforceable gun laws and safer streets

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Photo of James R. Silkenat by Marc Hauser.

Gun violence affects Americans in our biggest cities and smallest towns alike. More than 100,000 Americans are shot each year—either by their own hand or by another’s—with 31,000 resulting deaths. The rate of per capita gun violence in the U.S. far exceeds that of any other industrialized nation.

Lawyers are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including the Second Amendment. Many in our profession own firearms, and many have been touched by gun violence. Many represent those accused of using a gun in a crime, and others prosecute those crimes or represent victims in civil actions.

As lawyers, we can help our society reframe the divisive debates over gun violence. Regardless of our backgrounds, we all want a safer America. That is why the American Bar Association is planning various CLE and other programs to give legal experts the opportunity to weigh in on Second Amendment and gun violence issues.

At the same time, we recognize that the issues are complex and that legislative reforms are only part of the solution. The ABA is therefore assisting bar associations and community groups across the country in hosting a series of conversations, with the expectation that shedding light on these issues will help us find ways to make our communities safer. We will bring together representatives from local governments, local civic and business leaders, religious organizations, law enforcement, teachers, mental health experts and families for discussions about what security means, what responsible gun ownership is and what we can all do to keep our streets safe.

The ABA’s public advocacy on gun ownership and gun violence is guided by the policies adopted by the association’s 550-member House of Delegates, whose members represent all state bars and other lawyer constituencies. Much of our activity is carried out by the ABA Standing Committee on Gun Violence.

The association’s interest in making our nation’s gun laws reasonable and enforceable dates back to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The first ABA policy related to gun violence was later enacted as key provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968. Since then, the House of Delegates has approved more than a dozen policy resolutions directed toward reducing gun violence. In letters and testimony to Congress last spring that cited our policies, the ABA called for laws to curb gun violence, including more resources to treat mental health issues in our criminal justice system. The letters also endorsed measures that would improve the background check system, strengthen laws that address illegal gun trafficking, and limit the availability of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

These steps are fully consistent with the right to bear arms as expressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller. The court made clear that the Second Amendment is not absolute and does not allow a citizen to “keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA should be at the table for important conversations that involve our nation’s laws. Gun violence, despite the difficulty of the topic, is one such discussion that can benefit from the inclusion of a legal perspective.

I encourage you to follow the activity of the Standing Committee on Gun Violence and to join the ABA’s grassroots action team so that you can receive alerts and information on gun issues when action is pending.

For the sake of those we have lost through gun violence, for those left behind and out of respect for the long tradition of responsible gun ownership in this country, we need a national conversation. As lawyers, we have a responsibility to advocate for just laws that preserve our nation and uphold the Constitution for future generations. By talking to each other, we can identify the best ways to do both.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “An Essential Conversation: ABA fosters discussion on reasonable, enforceable gun laws and safer streets.”

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