There have been more mass shootings in the U.S. than days in 2023. Our nation continues to reel from a skyrocketing rate of mass casualty tragedies—from Las Vegas, Uvalde, Buffalo, El Paso, Orlando, Parkland, Tucson, Sutherland Springs, and Sandy Hook to Nashville, Lewiston, Maine, Allen, Texas, Monterey Park, Calif., and Farmington, N.M. in just this past year.
Far too many Americans have lost loved ones in mass shootings over the last decade-plus. I can't imagine the grief and suffering these families have gone through. We can't bring back those we have lost. But lawmakers can prevent further loss of life by passing laws to regulate the inherently dangerous and unusually lethal firearms that mass shooters have wielded against our communities.
I just introduced the Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Firearms Exclusion (GOSAFE) Act. Our legislation addresses the inherently and unusually dangerous characteristics of the gas-operated firearms, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and conversion devices that are fueling our nation's alarming rise in mass casualty shooting events.
The GOSAFE Act specifically targets firearms that were originally designed for the battlefield. It regulates the sale, transfer, and manufacturing of these firearms based on the lethality of their internal mechanisms, as opposed to focusing on cosmetic features that individuals or gun manufacturers can easily modify.
We don't evaluate the safety and effectiveness of medicine based on whether it's in liquid or tablet form; our approach to regulating firearms should be based on the actual impacts of specific firearm mechanisms.
AR-15s—the weapons used in a number of mass shootings—aren't dangerous because of how they look. They are dangerous because they use expanding gas to simultaneously fire a bullet and reload the next round while staying steady on target. The weapon's primary limitation is how quickly a shooter can pull the trigger.
When you pull its trigger, an AR-15 doesn't actually fire multiple times. Before the bullet exits the barrel, the weapon has already begun to chamber the next round. Trapping high-pressure gases in order to cycle these actions also reduces kickback, which means that you can fire multiple times very quickly and very accurately.
These gas-operated mechanisms are what allow civilian mass shooters to walk into public spaces, destroy human life at a rapid pace, and outgun law enforcement.
The GOSAFE Act would establish a list of federally regulated semi-automatic, gas-operated firearms—like AR-15s. It would also prevent unlawful modifications to lawful firearms, limit the number of ammunition rounds and magazines that feed into firearms, and outlaw self-manufactured "ghost" guns, detachable, high-capacity magazines, and conversion devices like Glock switches and bump stocks.
This legislation purposefully exempts firearms that have established self-defense and hunting uses—like recoil-operated handguns, bolt-action rifles, and shotguns that are commonly used for hunting. There are also exemptions on maximum ammunition capacity that correspond with a firearm's individual class—a rifle, shotgun, or handgun.
Gun owners would be allowed to retain all of their firearms that were lawfully owned before the law goes into effect. But to prevent the stockpiling of lethal weapons and large capacity magazines, transfers of regulated firearms would only be allowed between immediate family members.
The bill also creates a voluntary buy-back program to allow gun owners to turn over and receive compensation for non-transferrable firearms and magazines, to make sure lawful owners don't lose the value of firearms already in their possession.
Like many Americans—and many of my constituents in New Mexico—I am a gun owner. In fact, many of my best memories involve the responsible, law-abiding use of firearms to fill my freezer and feed my friends and family. I also firmly believe that when our families and children go to the local movie theater, classroom, grocery store, or place of worship, they should not have to live in fear that they might encounter the next American mass shooting tragedy.
Last year, I was proud to play a leading role in the negotiations that led to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—the first significant federal gun safety law in nearly three decades. We proved that it is possible for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to find agreement on measures that protect our communities from gun violence while also safeguarding our Second Amendment right to own firearms for legitimate purposes.
I refuse to accept the premise that Democrats and Republicans—or gun safety advocates and gun owners—are so divided that we can't take commonsense actions that will save lives.
Martin Heinrich is a United States senator for New Mexico, elected in 2012. He serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, Appropriations, Intelligence, and Joint Economic Committees. As a lifelong gun owner and father, Heinrich has worked for years to advance pragmatic, bipartisan policies to save lives, protect public safety, and reduce gun violence.