In the wake of two horrible mass shootings in as many weeks, Congress appears as if it might … might … want to do something about how the wrong people obtain guns. As usual, the urgency is coming almost exclusively from the Democratic side, but some Republicans, led by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, are actively participating in drafting potential legislation. But for Congress to actually enact bipartisan legislation, rather than simply go through the motions of another fruitless debate, lawmakers will have to focus on specific preventions not generalized gun bans.
Many on the left will likely say bans are prevention measures. But bans on certain types of weapons or ammunition aren’t practical or politically smart. There are hundreds of millions of semi-automatic firearms owned by over 100 millions Americans, including over 20 million AR-15-type rifles, the most common rifle sold in the U.S. Moreover, bans immediately alienate law-abiding gun owners whose support is crucial to Republican legislators whose support is essential to passage of any new bill.
The key is to remember that neither the “gun lobby” (which President Biden has blamed) nor the “gun grabbers” (the NRA’s boogeyman) supports arming violent predatory criminals or psychopaths. We are not fighting about the policy results because we already agree that dangerous people shouldn’t have access to weapons. To avoid the pointless trap of political demonization, our orienting question must be: “In whose hands are the guns?” Whatever laws we write should be smart enough to distinguish between law-abiding gun owners and people with criminal intent. For the latter group, which the shooters in Buffalo and Uvalde so obviously belong to, we must then ask: How did they get the weapons and how can we make it harder for those types to get them in the future?
Instead of farcical ideas like arming elementary school teachers, which isn’t any more palatable to educators than mandating psychiatric exams prior to buying guns are to firearm owners. Instead let’s examine ideas that can make us safe and are in the realm of the possible. Here are a few:
1. Under the law today, an 18-year-old cannot buy a beer or purchase a handgun until he turns 21. But he can buy a rifle, including the AR-15 style weapon used in the Uvalde shooting, within days of turning 18. We can raise the age for purchase of a long gun to the same age under federal law for purchase of a handgun — 21 years old. It would have prevented both the shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo from obtaining the guns they in fact lawfully purchased and disturbingly used.
2. The next item that we could fix is a properly drafted gun restraining order or “Red Flag Law.” To obtain gun owner support (indeed any civil libertarian support), such a law must limit those seeking the restraining order to those who have close interactions with the respondent. They must have clear and convincing evidence that the person is an immediate danger. In an emergency situation, the order could be granted before the respondent can counter, but a full hearing must expeditiously be granted. If we adhere to due process (avoiding hearsay, for example) gun owners can’t complain that the laws infringe the rights of peaceful gun owners. Several states have enacted RFL’s with varying degrees of opposition and success. The more careful we are in drafting this law, the less likely it will become a poorly used prohibition that gun owners will decry.
3. We can pass background checks for all commercial transfers of firearms. Note that I didn’t suggest the more politically charged and counter-productive “universal” background checks. Universal background checks include transfers to family members which inevitably will be ignored, making de facto criminals of millions of children, parents and spouses. The value of background checks is verifying the safety of people you don’t know, not delaying transfers to those who sleep in the next bedroom or long-standing close friends.
4. Let’s pass legislation that gives an immediate income tax deduction for the purchase of gun safes for both home and cars. States with sales taxes can piggyback this with a sales tax exemption as well. This might sound like an unusual indulgence for gun owners, but isn’t the point to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands? If we can achieve that with a tax carrot rather than a criminal stick, why shouldn’t we? Let’s encourage gun owners by using our tax code before we consider more mandates in our criminal code.
5. Finally, we need an organized and coordinated approach to this multifaceted problem. This should begin immediately but the benefits will take more time. Pete Gagliardi, former director of Congressional affairs at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, has proposed a “national task force on mass shootings.” Gagliardi wrote, “To label the cause of the problem as one thing or another — mental illness or guns or both — without deliberate review by diverse entities at this point may be little more than opinions, as well-intended as they may be. Even if 100 percent correct, they are not in and of themselves sustainable solutions without a well-conceived proper plan of action.” Maturity requires using the moment to make the right decisions. If we continue following the pacifying cry to “just do something,” we will again miss the opportunity to make effectual choices.
Defined in terms of promoting safety rather than denying rights, new gun laws can be politically advantageous to both sides.
The past two years saw a huge increase in gun buying amongst Asians, Black people, Hispanics and women, constituencies the Democrats historically count upon. These voters are listening to this debate and what they hear (intentionally or otherwise) is that “they can’t be trusted with the guns they own” and that they should rely on the police for protection. (The inadequate performance by law enforcement in Uvalde makes this proposition debatable at best.) Gun laws that make it impossible for citizens to protect themselves will only help drive more voters into the arms of the GOP.
When Republicans “Just say no,” a defensive crouch that doesn’t align with the majority of public opinion, and Democrats seek to outlaw the last firearm type misused it’s no wonder Americans feel hopeless from calculated gridlock. There are answers surrounding the misuse of guns if we will address them calmly and without the annoying tribal accusations that underscore infuriating politics but preclude constructive policy accomplishments.
Good politics dictate that the people participate in the policy process. If you don’t like the process of democracy, that’s a whole different debate. We used to be pretty good at balancing interests, rights and responsibilities in the United States. In the 1980s, Mothers against Drunk Driving helped to raise the drinking age to 21. We didn’t set as a goal the prohibition of alcohol nor the suspension of the sale, ownership or use of private vehicles. We zeroed in on the problem of a deadly behavior. We ought to try that strategy again right now.
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