Congress can turn protest into progress on guns, immigration

Congress can turn protest into progress on guns, immigration
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The gun issue has exploded on the political scene as a result of the Parkland school shooting and mass rallies over the weekend. Yet, without bipartisan support of some kind, serious proposals to curb gun violence will likely go nowhere, regardless of who is elected to Congress.

It will take, I believe, a grand bargain on guns and immigration to move the country forward on issues the public seems to have clear opinions on but which the political system has bottled up for more than a decade.

America is the No. 1 country when it comes to gun ownership, with more guns per person than any other country. As I outlined in my new book, “Microtrends Squared,” the latest trend in gun ownership is that of more and more women buying handguns for protection, and the gender gap on gun ownership is closing.

When gun protests go up, so do gun sales. Surprisingly, gun violence in the last two decades has significantly declined. The peak number of murders was about 24,000 in 1991 and now, despite much higher population, there are about 15,000 murders a year. Handguns are responsible for the overwhelming majority of them. Murder by any type of rifle is about 250 a year, according to FBI crime statistics.

Murders and school shootings are heavily tied to big cities and to schools in minority communities. Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago are among the most dangerous places in America. And murders are generally committed by young people, with a peak age of 24. One in five murders are committed by those age 21 or under.

This dose of statistical reality suggests that moving numbers on gun violence is primarily about handguns, inner cities, and curbing hard drugs and gangs. With millions of assault rifles out there, a ban on manufacture and sale is unlikely to be very effective. A more effective approach would be to require additional checks for the purchasers of these weapons and periodic renewals of those checks. Their use could be restricted and monitored to a much greater extent than at present, and that might work better than a manufacturing ban to curb their use in any mass shootings.

In terms of public opinion, the last Harvard CAPS/Harris poll found 61 percent favor renewal of the assault rifles ban and 84 percent agree that no guns should be sold to those under 21 years of age. But underlying these numbers is a political reality of broad gun ownership (about four in 10 households) that blocks one party alone from taking much action.

President Clinton is really the one president in modern history who made background checks and prohibitions on assault rifles a central part of his legislative initiatives. The Brady bill that established the national background check system must be considered a lasting, major accomplishment. But in the subsequent 1994 congressional elections, Democrats were wiped out electorally and the assault rifle ban was seen as a major reason for this massive loss.

Just as Republicans would soon learn to avoid government shutdowns, Democrats learned to avoid bills that anger gun owners. This explains why, when President Obama had an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives from 2009 to 2011 and close to (and sometimes a full) 60 Democratic senators, his administration proposed no gun legislation.

The weekend rallies suggest that maybe we are at a turning point, and yet, while scores of Democratic politicians showed up at the rallies, their proposals could be put on the head of a pin. Their problem is practical: The new seats that the Democrats are likely to gain in the next election will include districts in Republican states, and the fear is that any renewal of major gun control legislation will simply trigger the same 1994 cycle again. Any newly elected Democrats will see their careers as short lived, and themselves as thrown overboard by their party.

The best way to turn these protests into progress is to craft a bipartisan bill that will avoid fallout to any one party. Congressional negotiators have failed to put together a package on immigration alone, but perhaps all of these law enforcement, immigration, and gun safety issues could be put together in one bill hammered out by the leadership. Reasonable gun safety measures might be tempting enough to get Democrats over the line on border security. Past polling shows two-thirds favor the Trump proposals on immigration as part of a path for DACA recipients.

The potential bundle that might work here is this: Republicans would get Trump most of what he wants on the wall, ending the visa lottery, restricting chain migration, tougher anti-gang and drug laws, and added ability to quickly restrict weapons to those with mental illness. In exchange, Democrats should get a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, no gun sales to those under 21, and some kind of added background checks and periodic renewals for owning assault rifles, along with bans on bump stocks and anything that helps people make automatic-like weapons, such as bans on certain magazines.

Such a grand bargain across all these thorny issues would give Americans what they want on all counts, and might even restore the image of Congress as a functioning institution. It’s time for lawmakers to step up.

Mark Penn is chairman of the Harris Poll and served as adviser and pollster to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton on the mend after infection lands him in hospital Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization Appeals court allows Texas abortion law to stand MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE from 1995 to 2008. He is author of the new book, “Microtrends Squared,” from Simon & Schuster.