There are no school shootings on Zoom. And no live music means no cold-blooded massacres of concertgoers. But the fact that those ghastly paroxysms of death and despair have gone silent over the last year of pandemic shutdowns doesn’t mean that the everyday horror of gun violence in America has. Indeed, meaningful gun control cannot become an afterthought for President Biden and congressional leaders — and the current disarray within the gun-rights community provides a unique political opportunity to restrict access to deadly weaponry.
The number of gun deaths in the United States actually rose in some cities in 2020, despite pandemic restrictions that kept schools and businesses closed and reduced the number of mass-shooting deaths. Missouri had what is believed to be its deadliest year for gun violence ever. Philadelphia had twice as many shootings as in 2015. Baton Rouge had its most deadly year ever. Nonfatal shootings also rose. Gun assault rates were up 8 percent among 34 cities studied by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, even as crimes like burglary declined drastically.
In broad strokes, Congress and President Biden know what they need to do to stop the bleeding — and have known for years: Restore and update the ban on assault weapons. Increase funding for gun-violence research. Close the loophole that allows sales at gun shows without background checks. Allow victims to hold gun manufacturers financially liable for the fatal mayhem caused by their products. Encourage “smart gun” technology so that stolen weapons can’t be used by criminals. Biden, who as a US senator helped pass the first assault weapons ban in 1994, promised during the campaign to back those measures and others.
Still, gun control advocates are getting anxious about the absence of major announcements from the White House thus far — and they have good reason to be. Gun control always seems to be tomorrow’s priority for Democrats, never today’s. (Republicans, with just a handful of exceptions, have simply opposed gun control outright.) Biden can enact some changes — such as ensuring that individuals deemed mentally incapable are added to the background-check system — but most of the agenda will have to go through Congress. With so many other priorities jockeying for legislative time on Capitol Hill, it would be enormously helpful if the president used his bully pulpit to make sure gun control is one of them.
While restricting firearms is never going to be easy politically, the chances now might be better than when Barack Obama was president. The National Rifle Association is bankrupt and in turmoil, beset by internal divisions and a financial scandal. After spending heavily to elect Donald Trump in 2016, the organization more than halved its political spending in 2020. The way the organization wholeheartedly embraced Trump and Trumpism may even have backfired, by making blatantly obvious the white identity politics at the heart of the gun-rights movement. As if to remove all doubt, the NRA even produced ads attacking Black Lives Matter protests.
Before the pandemic, the politics around guns was pathetically predictable. After each mass shooting, there would be a brief flurry of outrage and calls to pass gun-safety legislation. At the state level, safety advocates might even make some fitful progress at limiting clip sizes or other incremental reforms. But in Washington, congressional Republicans, cowed by the NRA, would sit on their hands. It’s up to Biden to ensure that, when schools reopen and life returns to normal, that tragic routine doesn’t start all over again.
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