Sixteen of the nation's top retired military commanders are urging Congress to pass gun control legislation, arguing that there are many steps that can be taken to curb gun deaths that do not violate the Second Amendment.
In a letter they plan to send to Congressional leaders, the retired commanders, including Army Gens. Wesley Clark and Michael Hayden, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip and Marine Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, argue that Congress is "no longer speaking or voting for the majority of Americans, including gun owners" when it comes to the issue of firearms.
"There is no acceptable excuse for our elected leaders to avoid addressing this as a national crisis," they write.
The group is part of the veterans coalition of a gun control group founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. They laid out their arguments in a letter they plan to send to Congressional leaders.
The retired military men and women said that, as military leaders, they defended the Constitution and have considerable firearms training. As Americans, they said, they find the level of gun violence across the country unacceptable, calling the shootings that killed 58 people in Las Vegas in October and 26 in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November "but the latest instances of shocking horror" that the nation has experienced in recent years.
"Thoughts and prayers will not bring solutions," they write.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of gun deaths rose for the second straight year in 2016, to 12 per 100,000 people.
The letter comes as a House panel this week voted to advance a measure that would expand the ability to carry concealed firearms across state lines. Under the bill, known as concealed carry reciprocity, a person with a concealed-carry permit and a photo identification would be able to have a concealed weapon in any state that allows them. The gun owner would still have to follow state and local laws regarding where and what type of weapons can be carried. The National Rifle Association has called the bill its "highest legislative priority in Congress."
The legislation is scheduled for a House vote next week. Its sponsor, Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said in a statement that the bill is extremely popular and "momentum, common sense, and the facts are on our side."
Giffords said the bill weakens public safety, and Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he agrees.
"In the aftermath of two of the country's worst mass shootings, it's an affront to both our safety as a nation and the common sense of its citizens that Congress would consider actually weakening our gun laws," McChrystal said. "Untrained and potentially dangerous people have no business carrying guns in our communities, but the concealed carry bill in the House would allow exactly that."
The retired commanders argue that it is imperative that Congress tackle the issue because inaction will lead to more deaths. They argue that closing background check loopholes, barring extremely lethal guns and accessories and working toward preventing gun suicides can be addressed within "every reasonable interpretation" of the Second Amendment.
"We do not pretend that addressing our nation's gun violence crisis will be quick or easy, but we know for certain that it is your duty," the letter says.
They also said that the failure of the Defense Department to report domestic violence convictions so people with those convictions can't purchase firearms, is "unacceptable" and must be fixed. The Air Force failed to tell federal authorities about the domestic violence convictions of Devin Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, who purchased several guns after his release from jail and discharge from the military.
Giffords' husband, Kelly, a retired Navy captain, said veterans understand firearms – and the damage they can inflict when they end up in the wrong hands.
"These are people who have also defended the Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights, which includes the Second Amendment, with their lives. And they understand that common sense gun laws to protect communities from gun violence are not an infringement on the Second Amendment," he said. "They know this shouldn't be a political issue."
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said he believes it's time for both sides of the polarized debate to sit down and talk about the problem of gun violence.
"Let's have a discussion," he said. "I think we need to have reasonable people come to the table and have a discussion and need to understand that they have a responsibility to carry this conversation forward so we can deal with the risk that's currently in our society."