Is the Senate’s gun legislation the first step or the last?
Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a series of gun protection measures. The legislation prohibits sales of semi-automatic rifles to anyone under the age of 21; ends sales of bump stocks and un-serialized and untraceable “ghost” guns; bans sales of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition; expands background checks to include gun shows (where 30 percent of guns connected to criminal trafficking are purchased), online, and other commercial transactions; and specifies requirements for the storage of guns.
Despite widespread public support for these reforms, only a handful of House Republicans voted for them. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said the measures take “Second Amendment rights, God-given rights” away from law-abiding citizens. Republicans pronounced the House bills dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate.
Last week, however, ten Republican senators — enough to prevent a filibuster — indicated support in principle for not-yet-drafted legislation that provides enhanced vetting of (but no ban on) 18-21 year old gun purchasers; incentives (but no mandate) for states to enact “red flag laws” authorizing judges to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals posing a danger to themselves or others; appropriations for mental health and suicide prevention services; and “hardening” schools against mass shooters.
Quantifying the impact of gun control measures with precision is difficult, if not impossible. Many factors affect the number of gun-related homicides, suicides, and mass shootings, including ebbs and flows in annual crime rates; dramatic differences in state-by-state gun-control laws; loopholes in and enforcement of past and current federal legislation.
That said, the measures passed by the House do address the fundamental issue: easy access to guns.
The Senate bill, which is as far as the ten Republicans are willing to go, is little more than (gun) smoke and mirrors.
Two-thirds of K-12 schools in the United States already have security personnel on campus; in over half of them at least one officer is armed. Nearly all schools limit access to buildings; more than half regulate access to school grounds as well. Since 2018, Florida has spent about $900 million beefing up security against mass shootings.
No evidence supports the claim of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who accepts more money from gun lobbies than any other member of Congress: “We know from past experience that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus.” In fact, after documenting fatalities and serious injuries from school shootings between 1980 and 2019, with armed personnel on campus for 23.58 percent of them, a recent study found that the death rate was 2.83 times greater when armed personnel were present. And physicians and psychologists have indicated that active shooter drills often traumatize students. No wonder an official in Idaho characterized school safety measures as “security theater.” And a parent in Houston, Texas described them as “a band-aid, guaranteed to fail.”
Despite the numerous flaws of the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 — the bill covered only a few categories of weapons, most notably AR-15s; grandfathered in 1.5 million assault weapons and 25 million large capacity magazines that had previously been purchased; and allowed the ban to expire in 2004 when its impact was still increasing — mass shootings and fatalities were 70 percent less likely to occur while the law was on the books. After the ban was lifted there was an immediate and steep increase in mass shootings. One study estimates that 314 of 448 deaths in them might have been prevented had the ban remained in place.
Given the large role played by semi-automatic handguns (47.9 percent) and assault weapons (24.6 percent) in mass shootings, restricting large capacity magazines (which are also used in the large class of firearms without military-style features), according to one study, can reduce the number of victims by as much as 25 percent. Another study found that when large capacity magazines were involved, the average death toll in mass shootings increased by 62 percent.
In 2020, FBI background checks prevented 300,000 illegal gun sales, more than 40 percent of them to people with felony convictions. States requiring background checks for private handgun sales have 48 percent fewer suicides by gun, while suicide rates by other means remained the same. Even better results will follow if loopholes are closed; national laws replace the patchwork of municipal and state statutes that result, for example, in criminals in Chicago importing 60 percent of their guns from outside Illinois, and local authorities enact robust licensing requirements.
The bills passed by the House of Representatives, which in my opinion do not violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, might well have brought down the horrifically high numbers of suicides, homicides, and mass shootings in America. Nonetheless, even the much less impactful legislation in the Senate has been praised as an important and long overdue step in the right direction.
Perhaps it is — but only if we do not allow Republicans (who are responding now to intense political pressure to do something) to emerge “smiling from the world’s great snare uncaught,” and make this first step their last on the issue.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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