President Donald Trump this week has signaled that he is willing to consider changes in some of the nation's gun laws.
Does that sound familiar? It should: We wrote the very same sentence in an editorial that appeared in February 2018.
It's the start of the same pattern that we've seen play out, with minor exceptions, after every mass shooting in the United States. Politicians, including the president, call for bipartisan solutions. Then, the usual gridlock sets in and nothing happens.
Now, in the wake of the weekend's massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Trump and some Republicans are saying that they might be willing to support so-called "red flag" laws, which allow authorities to obtain a special kind of protective order — known as an extreme risk protection order — to remove guns from people deemed dangerous. (The idea is similar to a 2017 Oregon law that allows police to temporarily confiscate firearms after a family member or law enforcement officer petitions a judge that the person is dangerous and should be kept away from guns.)
Democrats are skeptical. They say any red-flag legislation moving through the Senate must be accompanied by a pair of bills, already passed by the House, that would expand background checks. One of the bills would expand criminal background checks to would-be purchasers on the the internet and at gun shows; the other would lengthen the waiting period for gun buyers flagged by the instant background check system to allow more time for the FBI to investigate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked the bills from being considered by the Senate.
But there might be some room emerging for compromise. On Wednesday, on his way to visit Dayton and El Paso, Trump told reporters that he was willing to consider expanding background checks for gun purchasers — even though, earlier this year, he threatened to veto the House bills.
Of course, what Trump said yesterday could be completely different than what he says today; that, too, has become commonplace.
But there is support nationwide for stronger background checks. A 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than 93% of people in households that owned guns favored universal checks.
And, to be fair, there has been some movement in Washington, D.C., on some of the issues we identified last February. For example, the Justice Department has issued a ruling which essentially bans bump stocks, the gun stocks which can allow semiautomatic weapons to somewhat mimic the firing action of fully automatic firearms. (Several lawsuits have been filed to challenge the ruling.)
In addition, the federal government has attempted to clarify the Dickey Amendment, the 1996 rider to a government spending bill mandating that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control." For years, researchers have (with good reason) interpreted the amendment as a federal ban on research into gun violence. The predictable result is that we have very little research in this area. Last year, however, Congress approved language saying that the CDC could in fact conduct research into gun violence, but could not use any federal dollars to specifically advocate or promote gun control. It would be better, of course, to simply remove the amendment, but this is a small step in the right direction.
It could be that a combination of background checks and red-flag laws might not reduce the number of mass shootings in the United States — but these shootings, for all the attention they draw, only made up about 1.2% of all the gun deaths in the U.S. in 2016. Suicide by gun is much more common — and studies have shown that if you make suicide more difficult, suicide rates drop. Small changes in gun laws could make a big difference. And small changes are better than doing nothing. (mm)