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Milwaukee’s Leading Anti-gun Violence Advocate Invited to White House to Advise Vice President Biden

Jan. 23, 2013
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Jeri Bonavia, founder of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE), wasn’t sure why she, along with 14 others, was selected to meet with Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss gun violence.

But she had a lot to tell them.

Like all Americans, Biden and Holder, along with President Obama, were outraged by the mass murder of 26 innocent children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Prior to that, they, along with the nation, were horrified by senseless mass shootings at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and in Portland, Ore., Aurora, Colo. and Tucson, Ariz.

Biden and Holder conducted meetings with anti-gun violence advocates, shooting victims and their families, medical and mental health experts and other stakeholders to discuss reasonable gun restrictions that also respect the Second Amendment.

Bonavia told Biden and Holder that her top priority was requiring that criminal background checks be conducted before all gun sales, which she believes should be implemented in both state and federal law.

Although gun purchases from federally licensed firearms dealers require a background check, roughly 40% of all gun purchases are conducted by private sellers who don’t have to conduct background checks. These private sellers range from reputable enthusiasts at gun shows to anonymous Internet dealers to criminals on the street.

The problem, of course, is that criminals, domestic abusers and those with a serious mental illness who aren’t able to pass a background check are able to buy guns anywhere, anytime, from these private sellers, with no questions asked—and it’s legal.

“It’s this gaping loophole,” Bonavia told the Shepherd last week. “Until it is closed, anything we attempt to do will only apply to the regulated portion of the market. If nearly half of the market is unregulated, whatever we do to the regulated market will have limited potential. You’re starting off at this deficit, saying, whatever we’re doing just isn’t going to be all that effective. Until we fix that part of it, nothing that we do will matter.”


Overwhelming Support from Gun Owners and NRA Members

Bonavia said that almost everyone at the meeting suggested implementing the background check requirement and it’s one reform that the public supports in overwhelming numbers.

According to a major poll conducted by CBS News and the New York Times in mid-January, 92% of all Americans polled favor background checks for all potential gun purchases. Just 7% of the adults polled oppose them.

And while the National Rifle Association (NRA) is fighting tooth and nail to prevent background checks from becoming law, gun owners and NRA members see their value. According to the January poll, 85% of NRA households support them and a whopping 93% of those with a gun in the house support background checks as well. It’s something that cuts across the political spectrum as well, with 89% of Republicans, 93% of Democrats and 93% of Independents in favor of them.

Even before the Sandy Hook school tragedy, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found last July that 82% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members support improved background checks.

Given the public support for background checks and the very real problem they would address, it’s not surprising that Obama is urging Congress to pass a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales. He also released 23 executive orders to use more federal resources to begin combatting gun violence and its impacts.


‘Fix It, Mommy’

Bonavia laughed when she said she didn’t know why the White House emailed her a request to meet with Biden and Holder. But she has been a leading anti-gun violence advocate in Wisconsin for almost 20 years, beginning when her then 5-year-old daughter told her, “So many kids are killed with guns. Fix it, mommy.”

That simple request spurred Bonavia to research and speak out about sane measures that would decrease gun violence in our streets and homes, yet have no adverse affect on the vast majority of law-abiding, responsible gun owners, including those in her family.

Bonavia said she had only a few days’ notice before the meeting to purchase a plane ticket and send her list of priorities to the White House before seeing Biden and Holder. She also paid for all of the expenses she incurred to make the trip.

She said the participants at the roundtable meeting were other state and national gun violence prevention experts, as well as shooting victims and their families. Survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting spoke, as did a mother of a high school honors student who was shot and killed on a Chicago bus while protecting other passengers. Another man had, as a child, witnessed his mother and sister being shot and killed by his mother’s partner. The father of a woman killed in the Aurora theater attended as well.

Bonavia said that Biden and Holder were very knowledgeable on the specific details of gun policies and were genuinely interested in what the participants had to say.

“The attorney general talked about his recent trip to Sandy Hook elementary,” Bonavia said. “He toured the school and he talked about the tufts of carpeting that were pulled up from where the bullets had hit. He did not go into graphic detail but he said that if the American public could see the images that I saw that day, this would be a done deal. This whole package would pass. You cannot look at something like that and leave thinking the status quo is OK.”

She said Biden—whose first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972—was especially moved by the victims’ and families’ testimony.

“After one of the victims spoke, the vice president had tears in his eyes,” Bonavia said. “He said, ‘My family died and there were policies that could have come from that tragedy that I should have been advocating for. I should have had the courage to advocate for them, but I couldn’t talk about my own experience. I just didn’t have the courage to advocate for them. So I am here in this room with you and I am amazed and stunned and moved by your conviction and your willingness to put the country’s interests before your own.’”

Bonavia continued, “I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room. The vice president was all teared up. He was letting them know, I’ve got your back, you’re willing to do this and I’m not going to let you out there alone. It seemed so genuine for me.”


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