We've all been keeping a close eye on Washington these days. We know that the decisions being made by the new administration and Congress will impact our families, our communities, and the future of our country. Everybody knows the stakes couldn't be higher — which is why we're not only watching, but we're also making our voices heard. That's the reason why phone calls and letters have been flooding Congress. It's why concerned people across the country have been turning out at town halls and protests in record numbers. And it's why I left my home in Texas and flew to Capitol Hill to speak up and share my story in the halls of Congress as our elected officials weigh one of the most important decisions in their power to make: who will fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court rulings impact nearly every aspect of American life, but for me there is one issue that rises above the rest: preventing gun violence.
In the summer of 2012, my daughter, Jessi, was just 24 years old. She was living in Denver, finishing up her college degree in journalism and sports broadcasting. That July, she and her best friend from childhood decided to go to a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. About 30 minutes into the film, a deranged shooter stole Jessi's life and forever changed mine.
Jessi is dead because the system failed. Jessi is dead because even though he repeatedly showed clear signs of severe mental illness and a predilection towards violence, the shooter was easily able to amass an arsenal. Jessi is dead because, in a matter of seconds, an unhinged man who should have never gotten his hands on a gun was able to use a weapon of war to fire dozens of bullets at a crowd of people innocently watching a movie. Twelve died that night, and 70 others were injured.
Despite all of this, I am not against guns. My husband Lonnie and are proud supporters of the Second Amendment. We're gun owners.
I do not blame my daughter's death on a gun. I blame her death ... on a system that lets people known to pose serious risks to the public to arm themselves with weapons that allow them to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time.
I do not blame my daughter's death on a gun. I blame her death — and the deaths of hundreds of others killed in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown, Charleston, Orlando, and far too many other places — on a system that lets people known to pose serious risks to the public to arm themselves with weapons that allow them to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time. But I also firmly believe that America can protect the Second Amendment and save lives; the two are not mutually exclusive.
We need justices on the Supreme Court who interpret and understand the Second Amendment this way. Last week, I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch for exactly that reason.
The cornerstone for understanding the Second Amendment properly is in the Supreme Court's landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller - and, in particular, the majority opinion in Heller written by Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Judge Gorsuch has been nominated to fill. In Heller, the Court held that law-abiding Americans have an individual right to keep a handgun in their house for self-defense. That is the same right that millions of responsible gun owners exercise every day — one that I exercise myself.
But I also believe that we have the power to strengthen the laws that protect us and make our communities safer. After Jessi was killed, the Colorado legislature closed loopholes in the state's background check system to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Several other state legislatures have done the same. They strengthened background checks and are preventing people like Jessi's killer from slipping through the cracks and acquiring deadly weapons.
America needs Supreme Court justices who recognize that commonsense gun laws go hand in hand with the Second Amendment — as Justice Scalia did in Heller. But in recent years, lawyers sponsored by the gun lobby have pushed an extreme agenda that conflicts with our nation's history and tradition and presents an acute threat to public safety. They advocate a deliberately deceitful interpretation of the Second Amendment that would eliminate laws that prohibit gun possession by convicted felons, domestic abusers, and those, like the Aurora shooter, who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others because to severe mental illness.
If the Supreme Court embraced the gun lobby's extremist vision, the implications would literally be measured in lives.
The gun lobby's radical view of the Second Amendment would seriously undermine the government's ability to require comprehensive background checks to keep guns out of dangerous hands. If politically motivated Supreme Court justices put aside precedent and embrace the gun lobby's agenda, commonsense gun laws that keep firearms out of schools, require permits to carry a concealed weapons, or keep guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers would disappear.
I refuse to sit quietly by when I know so much more can be done to save lives from the scourge of gun violence that stole my daughter Jessi from me.
Cases trying to dismantle these commonsense policies are making their way through the lower courts now, and several of them are likely to reach the Supreme Court in the months and years to come. If the Supreme Court embraced the gun lobby's extremist vision, the implications would literally be measured in lives.
That is why I traveled to Washington D.C. last week. I refuse to sit quietly by when I know so much more can be done to save lives from the scourge of gun violence that stole my daughter Jessi from me. Before confirming Judge Gorsuch, or any other nominee the president puts forward, we must make sure she or he believes — as Justice Scalia did — that the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It does not override other rights, like the right to peaceably assemble, practice one's own religion, and engage in political debate — or the right to feel safe in our homes, at our schools, on our streets, and at the movies.
Image: Sandy Phillips