Will pending congressional legislation measurably reduce the number of firearm slayings and injuries that plague our country?
That metric, more than anything else, should guide how we assess the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan framework on gun control – and to a lesser extent, the competing bill that already passed the House of Representatives.
Gun-control supporters say the Senate measure does too little in the face of too much bloodshed. Gun-rights supporters, wary of more restrictions on their ability to own and use firearms, counter it does too much.
What’s clear is the status quo has failed. Tens of thousands of gun-related deaths each year – more than half of them suicides – are the proof.
Federal lawmakers are responding to the shared grief and outrage following the slaughter at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last month, as well as other mass killings nationwide.
It’s been at least two decades since Congress has passed significant gun control legislation. Republicans, in thrall to the National Rifle Association and steadily growing right-wing gun culture that will brook no compromise, have blocked reasonable measures for years.
Unlike previous attacks, the obliteration of 19 children and two teachers on May 24 rattled inert congressional members. If only they’d done something sooner, like after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., maybe the insanity in Texas and elsewhere could’ve been prevented.
In addition, many large cities face a numbing, rampant body count every single week. It’s fueled by poverty, disrespect for life, and utter nonsense. Too many people use guns to settle mundane disputes. Black men are disproportionately victims and killers.
Ten Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent crafted the Senate proposal. The concept lacks specific language for now, but its broad themes include providing funding to states to establish red flag laws; allocating money for school mental health and violence prevention programs; mandating those under age 21 to undergo a background check and curbing the illegal trafficking of guns called straw purchases.
Virginia’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, said they favor the framework.
“This bipartisan proposal is a first and necessary step to reduce gun violence in our communities,” Tim Kaine said in a statement.
“Is it as far as I would have liked to have gone? No,” Mark Warner, through a spokesperson, said by email. “But the bipartisan plan … is an important step towards curbing the gun violence epidemic. It will save lives.”
Virginia already enacted stricter gun provisions in recent years, including a red-flag law to temporarily seize guns from people believed to pose a threat to themselves or others, and the restart of a limit on buying one handgun a month.
The U.S. House version is more stringent than the Senate’s. Among its provisions, the House plan bars the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under the age of 21 and bans the sale of large-capacity magazines. The bill passed on nearly party lines in the Democratic-controlled chamber, but it won’t overcome the 60-vote threshold to defeat a Senate filibuster.
Gun-control supporters will criticize the Senate bill. A slight majority of Americans – I count myself among them – favor stricter gun laws, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2021.
Many will say the Senate version is insufficient.
For example, it’s indefensible that assault-style weapons, used in many mass shootings, are so easy to obtain. They have but one purpose in the hands of civilians: to mow down people quickly and ruthlessly.
The country banned them from 1994 to 2004, and “the number of deaths from mass shootings fell, and the increase in the annual number of incidents slowed down,” according to a recent article by Michael J. Klein, clinical assistant professor of surgery at New York University.
The Senate version doesn’t change current laws on assault weapons, something President Joe Biden and most Democrats nationwide favor. Majorities of Republicans, though, oppose policies creating a federal database to track all gun sales, as well as banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds, Pew Research said.
What gun-rights supporters fail to admit is even Antonin Scalia – their sainted, late Supreme Court justice – acknowledged the efficacy of gun laws. He said so in writing the 2008 majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Scalia noted about the Second Amendment’s individual right to keep and bear arms: “Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not.” He continued later, “ … [C]ommentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The Gun Violence Archive reported more than 45,000 gun deaths last year; some 24,000 were suicides. No other industrialized, wealthy nation of more than 10 million people comes close to our collective mayhem, nor our irrational tolerance for it.
I’ve reported on gun violence in Detroit and in Hampton Roads. When I was on the police beat in the Motor City, annual homicide totals hovered around 600, an incredible number.
I’ve covered too many killings motivated by drugs, or hubris, or romantic disputes. I’ve written about mass shootings at post offices and municipal centers, and massacres at dope houses.
If guns weren’t involved, people might still die. If people – especially men – had only their fists, they’d think twice before rushing into an altercation. The death toll would be much lower.
Congress must end the inertia. The Senate framework is no panacea, yet passage of the legislation would keep more people alive.
And fewer people grieving the loss of loved ones.