Few issues in American politics evoke the same degree of emotional fervor as the gun debate. Tempers flare and conspiracy theories abound on social media and across cable news as we argue over gun violence statistics, interpretations of the Second Amendment, and other related issues. Unfortunately, as the decibel level rises, commonsense policymaking often gets lost in the noise.
In March of 2013, my father, former Senator Herb Snyder, was chairing the Senate Committee on Government Organization as it considered a narrow bill related to possession of firearms on public property. The legislation would have overturned municipal ordinances in four towns, including Martinsburg, that prohibited guns in public parks, playgrounds, and city government buildings. Officials from these municipalities voiced opposition to the proposal, and out of deference to their position, Senator Snyder decided not to advance the bill.
For the first time in his more than two decades in public office, my father began receiving death threats, including a voicemail from an angry gun rights activist threatening that he wouldn’t make it home from Charleston alive. Keep in mind, this was not a debate about banning assault weapons or expanding mandatory background checks. It was a relatively obscure bill about overturning existing local ordinances in exactly four towns.
The lesson many of us learned from this episode is that even the narrowest discussion of gun safety measures can be perceived by some as undermining the Second Amendment. For certain gun rights organizations, compromising or ceding even an inch is tantamount to unraveling the entire Constitution. This makes for an incredibly difficult environment to pursue even the most incremental policy solutions.
Of course, in recent years, the United States has been shaken by a series of high-profile mass shootings. Now more than ever, our country is desperately in need of a reasoned, meaningful discussion about gun violence prevention.
If our political system was functioning properly, lawmakers would have already taken steps to address the epidemic. Even if you set aside the most controversial gun-control reforms, there are numerous well-considered and impactful proposals with broad public support. Whether it was adopting the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill on universal background checks following the Sandy Hook massacre, banning bump stocks following the ‘Vegas shooting, or reversing a longstanding policy that prevents the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths as a public health concern, Congress has had occasion and opportunity to do something—anything—to respond to these incidents.
Instead, lawmakers at every level have pursued more ideologically driven agendas that disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the voices of important constituents and stakeholders.
Time for Real Change
In 2016, the West Virginia Legislature repealed a longstanding law that required a permit and training to carry a concealed weapon, despite safety concerns and vocal objections from the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. I’ve spoken with numerous friends and family members who are gun owners, and none could understand the rush to eliminate the permit.
Earlier this year, a bill advanced through the House Education Committee that would require all public universities across the state, including Shepherd University, to allow guns on campus. The bill passed the committee despite unanimous opposition from every college president in West Virginia. While the legislation stalled before coming to the House floor, several local delegates are on record in support of the proposal, and the bill is likely to make a return next session.
In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to parents who have stated unequivocally that they will not send their children to a West Virginia college if guns are allowed in classrooms and dorms. I’ve also talked to public school teachers who are deeply concerned about the suggestion that they should be armed and prepared to respond to an active shooter. The vast majority of Americans understand that such proposals are misguided at best and dangerous at worst, but in an environment where ideology trumps rationality, these are the debates we’re forced to have.
If we accept the premise that gun deaths are the inevitable price we must pay to live in a free society, then I suppose there isn’t much need for advancing policies to address gun violence prevention. But there’s a more compelling argument that frequent mass shootings are inconsistent with the American bedrock principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And for those of us who are unwilling to accept these incidents as normal, it’s time for a national conversation that insists on common sense solutions from our lawmakers rather than ideologically motivated obfuscation and inaction.