“Now is not the time to talk about it.”
“Our thoughts and prayers...”
“It’s about mental illness.”
Those are some of the nonsensical bromides in America’s debate about gun control, all worn-out lines belonging to a similarly numbing script intended to deflect any sensible federal policy solutions after yet another mass shooting.
After a gunman opened fire at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, killing at least 26 people, including an 18-month-old baby, intelligent responses were in short supply. The shooter was a 26-year-old former Air Force member who had been discharged from service for bad conduct involving a domestic abuse incident against his wife and child. Sunday’s rampage is believed to have been triggered by another domestic dispute involving the perpetrator’s in-laws. It was the second-deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
In the midst of overpowering inertia in Washington, gun violence is on the rise, with mass shootings getting deadlier. On average, roughly 100 Americans were killed by firearms last year per day, including suicides, while more than 200 were shot nonfatally. Thoughts and prayers are certainly not moving the needle. Reinforcing the assault weapon ban seems farther away than ever.
Unfortunately, but predictably, President Trump followed the gun lobby playbook in response to the Texas tragedy. On Monday, he said: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.”
But it’s false to suggest that it can’t be both: America needs to get real about mental health and access to guns. And there are other attributes that mass shooters share, the more critical one being the incidence of domestic violence.
Congress’s inaction on any prudent measure of gun reform has prompted states to act on their own. Massachusetts continues to lead, with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and thus one with the lowest gun violence rates. (Just last week the Commonwealth became the first state to ban bump stocks, the device used in the Las Vegas shooting that turns semiautomatic firearms into fully automatic machine guns.)
Still, there are other gun reform proposals that Massachusetts lawmakers should immediately enact in order to close loopholes.
With mass shootings, someone almost always knows that the would-be shooter is having violent thoughts or making threats. Earlier this year, state Representative David Linsky filed legislation that would allow a family member, a police officer, or a medical professional to go to court and temporarily restrain access to guns for a person who poses an extreme danger to themselves or others.
“Right now, under Massachusetts law, if you know that someone in your family is threatening to inflict harm and has access to guns, you go to your local police department seeking help, but they can’t do anything about it,” said Linksy.
The gun violence restraining order bill is modeled after existing domestic violence protective orders. But this proposal deals with any threat of violence, period. Five other states have passed similar legislation, including Connecticut, where a study last year found that the law may have saved up to 100 lives. Taking the guns away from a high-risk individual not only removes the threat of violence, but could also serve as a wake-up call for them to seek mental health treatment, Linsky said.
Massacres like Sunday’s killings in Texas — and the congressional inaction that inevitably follows — now unfold along such a predictable pattern that it’s easy to fall into the trap of despair. And it would certainly be far better for the federal government to rise to the occasion. But until then, though, there remains reason for hope: Common-sense, state-by-state reforms like Linsky’s can save lives.
Lawmakers who could stop the carnage
Americans might have to come to terms with the fact that there may be no body count too high, no venue too sacred, no carnage too unspeakable to necessitate responsible controls of our society’s most lethal weapons. After a gunman in Las Vegas shot more than 500 people in a few minutes using a device that makes assault weapons nearly fully automatic, even the National Rifle Association seemed to admit that the time had come to rein in guns. Yet the Senate’s bill to ban bump stocks has languished.
With Republicans in the majority in Congress, gun control advocates have been playing defense against one bill that would deregulate silencers and another that would allow concealed carry permits to be transferred from state to state. That means a permit obtained in a state with weak gun laws would be valid in a state with stronger restrictions. The GOP’s last effort to bring the silencer bill to the House floor was derailed by a mass shooting.
Advocates have the best chance at defeating that legislation and moving the bump stock ban forward in the Senate. Below is a list of six key senators — four Democrats and two Republicans — who have voted with the gun lobby in the past and are up for reelection next year or are retiring. Some can be prodded to change their positions and others should be pushed out of office. Others may feel more free to vote their conscience without a re-election looming.
JOE MANCHIN (D-W.VA.)
Manchin coauthored bipartisan legislation to expand background checks for gun sales in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., suggesting he’s open to gun control measures. But the measure failed in 2013. And earlier this year, he voted for a repeal of an Obama administration regulation that prevented some mentally impaired people from buying firearms.
Contact Senator Manchin: Tweet @Sen_JoeManchin or call his Washington office at 202-224-3954.
HEIDI HEITKAMP (D-N.D.)
Heitkamp was one of a handful of Democrats to vote against the expanded background check legislation after Sandy Hook. She was also one of 13 Democrats who voted for the 2013 version of the concealed carry reciprocity bill, making her a key figure in the renewed fight over the issue.
Contact Senator Heitkamp: Tweet @SenatorHeitkamp or call her Washington office at 202-224-2043.
DEAN HELLER (R-NEV.)
Heller was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in his last election. But polls show he could have real trouble winning reelection. And the Las Vegas shooting, in his home state, will ratchet up the pressure to shift his position on guns.
Contact Senator Heller: Tweet @SenDeanHeller or call his Washington office at 202-224-6244.
JEFF FLAKE (R-ARIZ.)
Flake is a staunch opponent of gun control. But he’s also announced that he won’t seek reelection. Not only is Flake now free from having to fund-raise, his public break with the president means that he’s free from blind partisan loyalty as well. Flake spoke eloquently on the Senate floor about the “alarming and dangerous state of affairs” under the Trump administration. The same is equally true about the arsenal of assault weapons in civilian hands.
Contact Senator Flake: Tweet @JeffFlake or call his Washington office at 202-224-4521.
JOE DONNELLY (D-IND.)
Donnelly enjoys a 93 percent rating from the NRA. He opposes an assault weapons ban and was one of only four Democrats who earlier this year voted to overturn the Obama-era rule preventing some mentally impaired individuals from buying firearms. According to a Washington Post analysis, he has received more money from the NRA than any other member of Congress from his state.
Contact Senator Donnelly: Tweet @SenDonnelly or call his Washington office at 202-224-4814.
JON TESTER (D-MONT.)
Tester voted for the 2013 version of the concealed carry bill. But this spring, the National Rifle Association targeted him for voting against the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, whom the organization called “a highly-qualified, pro-Second Amendment” nominee for the Supreme Court.
Contact Senator Tester: Tweet @SenatorTester or call his Washington office at 202-224-2644.
Gun money gets results
The National Rifle Association wields extraordinary clout in our society. And it’s not all reflected in the large amount of money it spends on politics. The group spent about $54 million during the 2016 political cycle — with $37 million going to oppose Democratic candidates and $17 million in support of Republican candidates.
In addition to guns, the NRA has rebranded itself into a vanguard of the culture wars, releasing a series of apocalyptic-themed videos this summer starring conservative political commentator Dana Loesch. In one video, Loesch threatens The New York Times, saying it is “fake news” and that the NRA is “coming for you.” Another video defends President Donald Trump from all manner of liberal boogeymen — Hollywood, the free press, public schools. The NRA, Loesch concludes, is “freedom’s safest place.”
Not only does the NRA ride herd on politicians to never give an inch on gun control, it’s also become an explicitly political force pushing the GOP towards ever more radical firearm absolutism. As such, they’ve become the lead negotiators on the issue of guns for a segment of the American population fanatically committed to the idea that assault weapons in civilian hands makes the country safer, when all the bloody evidence points to the opposite conclusion.