Not all signs of returning to a pre-pandemic normal are good: On Monday, a man was charged with fatally shooting 10 people, including a police officer, in a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., only a week after another attacker killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, near Atlanta. Before then, perhaps in part because the pandemic severely limited the number of people gathering in public, the last mass shooting incident in a public place was in March 2020. But now, with the pandemic’s end in sight, America seems to be returning to what has, over the last several decades, become a horrifying “normal.”
The reality is that this normal is not some inevitable phenomenon; it’s a choice that federal lawmakers continue to make, mass shooting after mass shooting. With every new tragedy, Congress faces renewed pressure to pass gun control legislation — some of which has overwhelming public support — and still repeatedly fails to take serious action, if any, to prevent gun violence in a country with abnormally high gun-related deaths. And there is no excuse; at some point, lawmakers have to realize that their inaction costs tens of thousands of Americans their lives every single year.
Though Republican members of Congress have been notoriously reluctant to budge when it comes to gun reform, some Democrats have also chosen to let reckless laws stand instead of replacing them with safer measures. But now Democrats — many of whom ran and won on the promise of stricter gun laws — control the White House and both chambers of Congress, and they must seize this window of opportunity, however narrow it is, to take whatever steps they can to push gun reform forward. That won’t happen with what have become routine speeches or tweets responding to these massacres; Americans have all been down that road many times before and know how it will end. It happens by actually following through and passing new laws.
It’s true that the Democrats don’t have free rein to do as they wish in Washington. The filibuster in the Senate requires 60 votes — which means at least 10 Republicans need to join the Democrats — to send a bill to a floor vote. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Over the last few years, some Senate Republicans have changed their stance on the issue, showing more openness to at least some gun control legislation. So Democrats might not be able to pass sweeping reform under the current Senate rules, but they have a responsibility to find some compromise to break the gun control logjam that has haunted the United States for far too long.
That means starting with small steps. The first, for example, should be a requirement for background checks on every gun sale, a policy that 90 percent of Americans support. The House recently passed a bill to do just that, and while it passed along a mostly party-line vote, eight Republicans voted for it. The second step should be to ensure that there is a reasonable waiting period between someone’s decision to purchase a firearm and when they actually receive it. The point of that is to reduce the possibility of someone acting on an impulse, which is tragically what happened in the Atlanta-area shooting last week: The gunman bought his weapon merely hours before his killing spree.
These kinds of small steps could eventually lead to more meaningful reform like assault weapon bans. Just 10 days before the shooting in Boulder, a court blocked the city’s assault weapons ban that it had implemented in 2018 after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 14 kids and three staff members dead. (Though few details have been publicly released so far, reports indicate that the Boulder shooter did use some sort of assault rifle.) On Tuesday President Biden renewed his call to reinstate the long-expired federal ban.
There is no doubt that these measures would dramatically reduce gun violence in the United States. Not only do other nations that have stricter gun regulations have far fewer mass shootings — as is the case in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and every other developed country — but the federal assault weapons ban, which passed in 1994 and expired in 2004, proved that such a policy is extremely effective. In the 10 years that the federal ban was in place, mass shootings were 70 percent less likely to occur.
Biden spent much of his time during the Obama administration advocating for stricter gun laws, and he helped pass the federal assault weapons ban when he was in the Senate in the 1990s. Now that he’s at the helm, he ought to push even harder. And though Republicans on Capitol Hill also have a moral responsibility to stop the gun violence, it’s the Democrats who are in charge. If Republicans choose to stonewall responsible gun reform, then the Democrats will have a choice they have to make: Preserve the filibuster or save countless lives. And if it does indeed come to that, the choice should be clear.
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