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At the risk of sounding unsympathetic and disengaged, we have to admit something. We’re having a hard time keeping track of all the mass shootings and all of the lives lost to gun violence recently.
Eight people killed at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ten people killed at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. Eight people killed at a series of massage parlor attacks in the Atlanta, Georgia area. That’s just an incomplete list of some of the shootings nationwide since mid-March.
Unfortunately, horrifically, America has gotten used to this. And we’ve gotten used to the same old arguments and excuses for inaction in the national debate over guns.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Criminals will always find ways to get guns. Enforce the laws already on the books. Those statements are often provided as reasons to oppose any and all proposals that would strengthen gun laws. To us, they’re actually pretty good arguments for specific, targeted gun legislation.
Starting in 1968 and through several updates, federal law has prohibited certain people, like those convicted of a felony or subject to a domestic violence protection order, from possessing a firearm. When the Supreme Court held in the 2008 Heller case that the Second Amendment guarantees the individual right to possess a firearm independent from service in a militia, the majority opinion, written by conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia, also emphasized that the ruling “should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”
Guns don’t kill people, people do. OK, well America needs to do a better job making sure the people who are already legally prohibited from possessing firearms can’t access them. That means strengthening and expanding the background check system. It means better implementation and enforcement of existing measures like Indiana’s red flag law, which seems like it should have prevented the Indianapolis shooter from purchasing the two guns he used to kill eight people earlier this month. It means making sure the federal, state and local governments are communicating about prohibited individuals who try to purchase guns.
Criminals will always find a way to get guns. There may be some truth to this, but society can make it harder for them without penalizing law-abiding gun owners. That means taking additional steps to limit gun trafficking.
These aren’t new or extreme thoughts. Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have been making similar arguments for years.
“My focus has always been: Make it more difficult for people that we all agree should not have firearms, make it more difficult for them to get firearms,” Toomey said on “Meet the Press” in March. “That’s violent criminals, the dangerous, mentally ill.”
Toomey was the lead Republican, along with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, on a 2013 proposal that would have required background checks on gun sales online and at gun shows. Collins was one of only four Republicans to support the bill at the time, which failed to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate.
Now, Democrats in the House have passed a more universal background checks bill, but it seems unlikely to move in the Senate currently split between 50 members of the Democratic caucus and 50 Republicans.
That approach isn’t getting unified Democratic support. Manchin has already said he opposes it. Maine 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden already voted against it in the House. This is where the Manchin-Toomey framework should come back into play. The Democratic majorities in Congress need to be willing to do the possible things rather than what they see as the perfect things. And Republicans need to be willing to do the obvious things.
Take a look at the issue of straw purchasing, for example. This is when people who can’t legally buy a firearm use someone else to buy it for them. This is already a crime in a roundabout kind of way because it requires the straw purchaser to lie on a form submitted to federally licensed gun dealers. But more can be done to combat this tactic.
Straw purchasing clearly fuels criminal activity, yet it isn’t a specific federal crime of its own. Collins has been working with Democratic Sens. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois for years on a gun trafficking bill that would make it one.
“Straw purchasing is intended to achieve one result: to put a gun in the hands of a criminal who cannot legally obtain one,” Collins explained in a recent statement. “Traffickers, in particular, exploit weaknesses in federal law by targeting people who can lawfully purchase guns. Then, those traffickers use those guns to commit crimes or sell them to other criminals. This practice also fuels the opioid epidemic that is taking a devastating toll on all of our communities.”
The point is, there are obvious and very popular things Congress can do to limit gun violence.
Bipartisan efforts to expand background checks and make things harder for gun traffickers made sense years ago. They make sense now. Productive conversations about gun legislation can be difficult, but they’re not impossible. As with so many other issues, members of Congress need to work with each other rather than talk past each other.