President Obama was lamenter-in-chief in the wake of yet another mass gun murder, last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But his basic message was that he had gone as far as he could without the backing of Congress. The only thing left for him to do, he told a press conference, was to keep talking about the politics of the problem. Gun safety advocates have expressed their displeasure, noting that the President hasn’t even filled the recent vacancy at the helm of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Other Justice Department procedures have come under fire. The President is scheduled to speak Friday in Roseburg to a mourning community, some of whom have already said his politicization of the event is not welcome.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton put forth a four-point program that impliedly Obama could act on now. But, failing that, she, if elected, intends to move on it with – or without – Congress. She said she would take administrative action to close the loophole by which unlicensed vendors at gun shows and in private sales don’t do background checks. If Congress didn’t close the loophole, she would do so through regulation, by deeming anyone selling a certain number of guns to be a dealer. She would close a loophole that allows a purchaser to acquire a weapon if a background check hasn’t been completed within three days. She’d also bar domestic abusers from gun ownership. And she would change the broad immunity that gun manufacturers enjoy from legal liability for the use of guns in criminal actions. Clinton’s recommendations did not include other proposals like folding the chronically underfunded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) into the FBI or requiring gun dealers to maintain records of their inventories.
Still, it is very refreshing to hear a politician stand up to the NRA with a concrete sensible program for lessening gun violence. Was Hillary (who has had many different positions on guns in the past) motivated to speak out because it was an opportunity to switch the conversation away from her emails and move to the left of Bernie Sanders? Maybe. But perhaps she’s also cognizant that, though the NRA has a majority of a gelded Congress in its pocket, public opinion surveys show that between 87 and 92 percent of gun owners favor background checks in all gun transactions. Beyond expanding background checks, there are data keeping improvements that could, if centralized, keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill or those with criminal intent. Former Arkansas Congressman Jay Dickey, a Republican, now regrets having led the fight for the law limiting funds going to the Center for Disease Control for non-ideological research into gun violence as a public health issue.
A central data base enabling the tracking of multiple purchases could provide red flags signaling criminal intent. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, also running for President, would go further. He favors a national firearms registry. But it’s hard to imagine any Congress now or in the near future embracing that idea. According to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for the first time, 52 percent of Americans believe it is more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership.
It’s time to reframe the debate as about gun safety, not gun control. Control is a four-letter word to NRA members and their fellow travelers who embrace their guns with intense passion. They fear even a scintilla of further government encroachment on their freedoms. The NRA knows how to play to that fear and has raised its single-issue political strategy to an art form. But, as Alan Berlow pointed out in a NY Times op ed today, the NRA speaks more for criminals than law-abiding gun owners. This is a message that needs to get out.
Gun violence is a complex issue, and the root causes of mass murders are many and varied. Mental illness figures prominently in the equation. But it must be remembered that the United States has a gun homicide rate four times that of Switzerland; 21 times that of Australia; and 49 times that of France. Such countries don’t necessarily have less mental illness, but their mentally ill do not have the access to guns that is enjoyed here.
We’ll never eliminate gun violence, but we can lessen it. Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we should do nothing.
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