After the Senate’s April 17 defeat of legislation to ban new sales of semi-automatic “assault” rifles like the one used in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last December, Americans will just have to keep living with these and hundreds of other millions of guns. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to find better ways of making it safer for all of us, gun owners included, to do that.
Just take the proposal for universal background checks, which also went down to defeat. Actually, it would have passed if the Senate had been operating as the Constitution assumed it would, with a simple majority sufficing to pass laws. There was more than that -- 54 voted for it, but the Democratic leadership had agreed with the Republican minority to require 60 votes to approve the gun legislation that was on the floor, in hopes of blocking measures most Democrats didn’t like. The tactic failed, but the failure is not the end of the road for common-sense gun control.
The senators who voted against requiring background checks not only for gun purchases from federally licensed dealers, but also for the 20- to 40-percent of those sales by private sellers, online or at gun shows, “failed to do their job,” in the opinion of Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic representative from Arizona who was shot in the head in the mass killing in Tucson in 2011. “They looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby – and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing,” she wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times the day after the vote, adding: “Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s.”
The National Rifle Association hailed the Senate votes as a defeat for the “enemies of liberty,” but warned its members that more battles lay ahead: “Elected officials who support the Second Amendment will be subjected to a well-financed, cleverly conceived campaign designed to convince them that they are on the wrong side of history,” Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, wrote to members two days later.
But the NRA has been talking out of both sides of its mouth in the latest gun debates. It criticized background checks for not being effective because criminals can evade them, yet calling for measures to tighten up procedures that now allow many states to delay or even refuse to submit to the FBI background-check database the names of people with mental illness, criminal records, restraining orders, convictions for using illegal drugs or being addicted to them, etc. who existing federal law says should be on it. “We are working on a bill …that will hopefully at least get the records of those adjudicated, mentally incompetent and dangerous into the check system that applies on dealers,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre had said on NBC’s Meet the Press on March 24; “most of the states still do not even do that.” If it would be a good thing to tighten up background checks for sales by dealers, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for private sales as well? Because, according to the NRA, requiring background checks for those would “criminalize” law-abiding gun owners who wanted to sell or pass on their firearms to friends or relatives, and create the possibility of a Federal database of all gun owners that the government could use one day to seize their firearms.
Yet the NRA also says it is for vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws, which require record-keeping by gun dealers for the weapons they sell. The bill it helped defeat would have required private sellers to go to a licensed dealer for the background checks, and the dealers, not the government, would keep the records for those sales. The bill also had plenty of common-sense exemptions for legacies or family sales. More could have been added.
Focusing on a national ban on sales of “assault” rifles. or of limits on the number of rounds that magazines for semiautomatic handguns and rifles can hold, was misguided, great as the horror of what happened in Newtown was. And gun control alone, universal background checks included, cannot solve our 30,000-deaths-a-year gun violence problem. The NRA and President Obama agree that addressing shortcomings in our mental health care and reporting systems could do as much to prevent mass shootings by mentally disturbed gunmen as any gun control measures could. Adam Lanza, the killer in Newtown, did not purchase the weapons he used there and thus would not have been stopped by background checks or weapons bans, even if his mental illness had been treated and reported to authorities and his name had been put into the database. But that does not mean that there isn’t anything that can be done.
Nothing in the Second Amendment has ever banned common-sense gun regulations. Even the conservative Supreme Court majority that struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns in 2008 recognized that. Legislators should stop being cowed by the NRA and start making it live up to its own words on enforcing laws on the books. And NRA members who disagree with the lobby’s party line should start speaking up, and telling their senators and congressmen what they really think. Only then will common sense have a fighting chance against no-brain legislating like what we saw in the Senate on April 17.