John Pelissero (@1pel) is a political scientist and senior scholar for government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
Representative democracy has been the cornerstone of our country’s political system. The people elect individuals to serve as representatives in Congress and to act on their behalf. These elected officials take an oath and embrace a promise to act in the national public interest while serving as our representatives. Accepting public office and then refusing to act on urgent national issues is a dereliction of duty, and it’s unethical.
Mass shootings in this country constitute an urgent problem that manifests itself in communities everywhere: in schools—most recently Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas—stores, workplaces, nightclubs, and places of worship. The safety of citizens, especially vulnerable children, is dependent on public policy action by elected officials. Yet, gun safety continues to be some bizarre carve-out from national policy despite hundreds of mass shooting incidents and the unacceptable deaths and injuries of innocent schoolchildren that mars the national landscape.
An important moral role of democratic institutions is to adopt public policy that serves the common good. Public health and safety have often been the basis for many such policies. As a national government, we have adopted laws to make vehicles safer and to moderate safer travel. We have passed many laws to make workplace environments safer for workers. We have protected public health by requiring most medications to be prescribed by a medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacy. In each of these areas, deaths and injuries may still occur despite government policies to make them safer. But public officials have not shied away from regulating commodities and behavior because these policies actually do enhance public safety and protect the public interest.
So why is gun safety still an exception? Why do we abide elected representatives who refuse to act in the public interest when thousands of people are injured or killed by gun violence every year? Why do we ignore the rights of vulnerable school children who have been the victims of gun violence in so many horrific instances?
There are two common explanations for why we have not seen meaningful gun safety legislation passed in this country. First, is the long history of resistance to act on gun violence in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. Instead, the common response is to offer thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, while pushing off to a never-date any legislative action because the NRA and its political supporters are strongly opposed to any responsible gun safety laws. Second, is the argument that our political parties are too polarized to agree on any public policy, no matter its compelling need. That certainly characterizes much of the national-issue debate today, but it is not an acceptable rationale or practice.
Adoption of public policy on responsible, common sense gun safety is not only overdue, its absence from bipartisan agreements has become morally untenable. This national crisis is too important to be left entirely in the hands of unresponsive state legislatures, where lax approaches to gun safety have led to crimes in one state by those who obtained a legal weapon in another state. This national tragedy cannot be perpetuated by the NRA-led gun lobby that promotes an immoral environment in which gun manufacturers get richer, unstable individuals can purchase military style assault weapons without a background check, waiting period, or training, while innocent people—most appalling our young school-aged children—die by gun shots.
National policies on responsible gun safety can be adopted without eroding either the Second Amendment right to bear arms or the Tenth Amendment’s reserved powers of the states. National epidemics require national action. Congressional representatives cannot shirk their fundamental moral responsibility to serve the common good by doing nothing. It is the duty of our elected representatives to recognize the profound public interest at stake in the long-simmering and actionless debates around gun rights. (I note that the U.S. Senate may be on the brink of a bipartisan agreement on new laws and federal funding to address gun safety, school facilities, and mental health issues.) Yes, the country is polarized on many topics today. But elected representatives must step out and step up to address the morally indecent slaughter of innocent children and adults who have been the victims of decades of gun violence. There is no greater responsibility for government representatives of the people than to act now, to answer the call to serve the common good in the face of repeated mass shootings that have rattled our nation’s confidence in public safety and its trust in government.