The Gun Laws America Should Pass but Won't

Most people favor more gun control, but the Republicans in charge of Congress refuse to even consider it.

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Oct 3 2017, 7:00pm

A gun show in Texas in 2016. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Sunday, Americans were reminded that at nearly any time and in nearly any place, there is the possibility that a man—almost always a man—will shoot and kill you. Most mass shootings go relatively unremarked upon; what made Las Vegas so notable was the terrible scale. Fifty-nine dead, 527 injured, a gunman with dozens of weapons and a terrifyingly well-thought-out plan for how to inflict maximum damage on a crowd of strangers. As of Tuesday morning, his motives were still unclear, providing no purchase for any public debate about extremism or mental illness. The only thing that is clear is that he was a man who wanted to kill people—and that guns gave him the ability to do so.

The relevant political question is whether the Republican Party, which currently controls Congress and the White House, has any interest in trying to prevent this sort of thing. Recent history tells us that it does not.

The facts and figures of gun violence are by now familiar, since they enter the public consciousness every time a mass shooting is sufficiently horrific to become national news. Compared to other developed countries, the US has far more guns and far more mass shootings and gun deaths, including homicides, suicides, and accidents. In Nevada, more people die by gunfire than die of car accidents. It's also incredibly easy to buy a gun in that state—thanks to the "gun show loophole," you can purchase almost any kind of firearm you want without having to undergo a background check, which the Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, had reportedly passed anyway.

No legal regime can prevent every determined madman from killing people, especially someone like Paddock, who apparently didn't have a history of mental illness or violence. But there are reforms that have become blindingly obvious to both experts and regular citizens, making the last several years of congressional inaction and complete surrender to the gun lobby all the more obscene.

The most clear-cut reform on the table is expanding background checks to more gun sales and preventing some people, like violent criminals, the mentally ill, and especially domestic abusers, from buying guns. A poll conducted this year by the New York Times found that more than 80 percent of Americans support those proposals. Mandating that gun owners store their weapons safely and forcing gun buyers to go through a waiting period are also popular and endorsed by experts who study gun violence.

Those measures might reduce the number of gun deaths in the US—for instance, waiting periods could prevent distraught people from buying handguns they might immediately use to commit suicide. But it's hard to see how they would have stopped something like Vegas. That's where proposals banning high-capacity magazines and "bump stocks" that effectively convert semiautomatics into automatics can come into play—those restrictions, advocates say, would at least make it harder for mass shooters to kill dozens of people. (Paddock reportedly had bump stocks among the 23 guns stashed in his hotel room.)

Even simpler than any of that would be supplying money to fund research into gun violence. It remains a shockingly understudied topic, thanks to Congress effectively banning any federal cash from going to research that might lead to the conclusion that more guns mean more people are killed by those guns. That ban makes it harder for emergency rooms to know how to deal with mass shootings.

Any gun control measure will inevitably face court challenges: A high-capacity magazine ban in California is being fought in court right now; last year, the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional to prohibit domestic abusers from owning guns. But the problem isn't in the courts but in Congress, where gun control is regarded as a political impossibility thanks to the outsized influence of the gun lobby on the Republican Party.

In 2013, after a disturbed shooter murdered 20 children and six adults at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, both pro-gun senators, backed a measure to require background checks on gun sales that weren't between friends or family members. It was the most moderate reform you could imagine, and it still failed thanks in large part to opposition from Republicans (a few pro-gun Democrats also voted against it).

Most voters—including many Republicans—may support that sort of policy, but pro-gun voices led by the NRA are extremely loud and incredibly angry. As a result, any kind of rational debate has been blocked. The position of the NRA and its allies is that guns are good and the only solution to gun violence is to have more guns so ordinary citizens can shoot anyone who tries to shoot them. That logic has led to the NRA backing "open carry," making it legal to display weapons in public, a practice opposed by many police departments and which was once denounced by the NRA itself. (In the wake of the Vegas shooting, the group had gone silent, as it usually does after mass shootings.)

It's a testament to where the gun conversation is right now that many observers suspect the likeliest fallout from Vegas will be the defeat of a pending bill promising to make it easier to buy silencers. That is, the worst mass shooting in modern American history will result in a momentary halt to the rollback of restrictions on who can buy what kind of weapon.

Donald Trump said Tuesday that America will "be talking about gun laws as time goes by." But we already talked about gun laws plenty before Trump even became a candidate, much less among the more pro-gun presidents in history. More talk is not required. The terms of the debate are clear: Congress can attempt to reduce gun violence by making it harder to buy guns, or it can do nothing. If it does nothing, it is tacitly admitting that mass shootings are something Americans should simply have to live with— if they should be so lucky.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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