02-19-2017  3:48 am      •     

(CNN) -- I served in the armed forces for 25 years, but until January 8, 2011, I didn't think about guns or gun violence that much. I had other things to think about -- my children, traveling between Houston and Tucson and Washington to see my wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and of course, flying the space shuttle.

Like lots of people, every time there was a mass shooting, with lots of news coverage, I watched, but I wasn't aware of the statistics and of how gun violence permeates our country.

Then Gabby was shot and six of her constituents were murdered during a "Congress on Your Corner" event in Tucson, Arizona. During her long and ongoing recovery, I started paying a lot more attention.

I'm a numbers guy, a statistics guy -- and what I've learned has shocked me. Almost 100 people a day die from a gun, 33 are murdered. We've got 20 times the murder rate of similar countries.

I've watched the globe spin past below me from the window of the space shuttle.

And so my perspective has changed. I see this epidemic of gun violence as a crisis, because I know that every statistic is a citizen --- someone like my wife, or Hadiya Pendleton's mom, Cleopatra, who says simply about her daughter, murdered senselessly in Chicago, "a piece of my heart is gone." And, excuse the reference, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that while this issue is complicated, there are things we can do -- now, together -- that will reduce violence.

Like background checks. Right now, we have two systems. Some people, like me, when we buy a gun, we go through a background check. It takes about five minutes -- trust me, I'm not known to be a patient guy, and it didn't take more than a few minutes when I bought a rifle this past November.

Ninety-one percent of background checks are completed instantaneously, and they don't lead to a government database. And they work. I passed my background check and got my gun, and since 1994, more than 2 million folks -- among them, criminals and dangerously mentally ill people -- failed their background checks. But we don't know which of those millions just got in their car and drove to a gun show, or home to their computer to go on the Internet -- both places where anyone can buy a gun without a background check.

That doesn't make sense. It's like saying, hey, criminals, to board the plane, either go through a metal detector and be checked against the terrorist watch list, or, if you prefer, walk right down that red carpet and take a seat, no search necessary. Which would you choose?

That's why Gabby and I are so determined to get a universal background check in place. It's simple, it's not a Republican or a Democratic issue, and it closes a clear loophole that puts our kids and our communities at risk, and it does it in a way that respects the Second Amendment rights of people like me.

We aren't naive in thinking that expanded background checks will solve all our problems overnight, but they are a great first step that even gun owners support.

So, I'm putting everything I learned from my time in the Navy and at NASA -- 375 aircraft carrier landings, 39 combat missions and more than 50 days in space -- to working with Gabby and Americans For Responsible Solutions' more than 100,000 members to get this done.

When you're at the controls of a plane or the space shuttle, you rely on data. You analyze it methodically; you evaluate it objectively. The data around background checks is clear: Up to 40 percent of gun transfers are made without background checks, and a national survey of inmates found that nearly 80 percent of those who used a handgun in a crime acquired it without a background check. That tells me that criminals are getting guns, because we're making it too easy.

And 82 percent of U.S. gun owners -- including more than 70 percent of NRA members -- support criminal background checks for all gun sales. Ninety-two percent of all households in the country support universal background checks. That tells me that citizens across the country want Congress to get this done, because they know it will keep us safer.

That's a clear path, right there. We can get there if we all raise our voices.

Talk to your neighbors, your co-workers, the parents at your kids' basketball game. Talk to your elected representative.

Tell them you want one system, a universal background check that will keep all of us safer and respects our Second Amendment rights. Join Gabby and me at www.Americansforresponsiblesolutions.org.

 

Mark Kelly, the last commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavor and a former naval aviator, is the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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