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How Uvalde broke a three-decade stalemate on gun reform

Actor Matthew McConaughey holds an image of Alithia Ramirez, 10, who was killed in the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, as he speaks during a press briefing at the White House.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Actor Matthew McConaughey holds an image of Alithia Ramirez, 10, who was killed in the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, as he speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The U.S. Senate reached a bipartisan deal to improve gun safety last weekend, representing the most meaningful legislative effort in over 30 years to curb the rising scourge of gun violence in America. The plan’s provisions won’t solve the nation’s gun problem. But it’s an important step in the right direction.

Led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), a bipartisan group of 20 senators agreed on a plan that, hopefully, will result in fewer mass shootings nationwide. To be clear, just lowering the number of these events that claim thousands of innocent lives each year is not cause for excessive celebration. Stopping them altogether must always be our goal. Our elected leaders have more levers they can pull to keep families and children safe from gun violence.

Still, the significance of this moment, where senators from both parties came together to strengthen federal gun safety laws — a feat that hasn’t happened in nearly three decades — cannot be overstated. The plan incentivizes states to establish red flag laws, which enable judges to authorize law enforcement to remove guns from those deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. The plan also proposes significant investments in suicide prevention and mental health, closes the “boyfriend loophole,” and requires a mandatory review of the mental health and juvenile background of those under 21 before they can purchase a firearm.

A small group of Republican senators worked with the Democrats to reach this compromise. They had the audacity to set aside their differences and govern to confront the raging problem of gun violence in America. They had the courage and willingness to stand up to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and address what the American people have been pleading to happen for years. Both sides practiced the long-lost art of political dealmaking, and found a way to agree on a plan that satisfies neither, but offers hope that Congress can still tackle divisive issues and reach a resolution that will save lives.

Why now? After 30 years of failed attempts, what made these senators finally decide that this was the time to act? Following mass school shootings at Columbine High SchoolMarjory Stoneman Douglas High SchoolVirginia Tech UniversitySandy Hook Elementary, and Santa Fe High School — what was it about the unspeakable tragedy at Robb Elementary that made them realize that something had to be done?

Maybe it had something to do with the more than 250 mass shootings that have already occurred this year. Maybe the delayed law enforcement response in Uvalde was the last straw in dismantling the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” defense as being the best way to stop armed assailants. Maybe the publicity surrounding Uvalde native Matthew McConaughey’s passionate remarks at the White House helped tip the scale. Maybe it was the somber image of Maite Rodriguez’s green tennis shoes.

Whatever the reason, this small group of Republicans made this compromise possible. Yet, even after the horror in Uvalde, there are elected officials in Congress who staunchly object to even the slightest step that could prevent a gun from falling into the wrong hands. In the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) objected to proposed gun control bills in the U.S. House saying they would “destroy the Second Amendment.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said, “Democrats would love nothing more than to shift the blame and stoke anti-gun sentiment.”

The bipartisan plan falls short of comprehensive reform that holds the greatest promise of saving mass numbers of human lives. It doesn’t ban assault weapons, nor does it raise the age of buying a firearm to 21. It’s hard to grasp, exactly, how changing the gun-buying age to 21 would “destroy” the Second Amendment.

Gun advocates have argued that if you can vote at age 18 you should have the right to buy a gun. But similar arguments failed when Congress pressured states to increase the legal drinking age to 21 based on the belief that doing so would save lives. History proved this, as the nationwide change lowered drunk driving crashes and deaths and reduced unsafe sex, drinking-related violence and suicide rates.

America is the land of the free. It’s also home to innocent children who have the right to go to school without fear of being killed. When kids are dying in classrooms, laws need to change. Let’s hope this deal is a sign that compromise is possible, that political divides can be crossed, and that the cause of a safer nation is one worth fighting for.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. 

Tags Background checks Boyfriend Loophole Chris Murphy gun control legislation Gun control. Mass shootings Jim Jordan John Cornyn Mass shootings in the United States Matthew McConaughey Politics of the United States red flag laws Robb Elementary School school shootings Uvalde shooting

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