Another round of mass public murders has put gun safety back on the national agenda. On Thursday, President Biden pledged determination without surcease — while announcing several relatively minor measures. Speaking in the Rose Garden, the president said he had ordered the Department of Justice to devise a way to crack down on un-serial-numbered “ghost” guns that can be bought without background checks and assembled from kits or 3-D printers, and to further regulate stabilizing braces that effectively turn pistols into short-barrel rifles.
He also promised DOJ would prepare a model statute for states that want to enact a so-called “red flag” law, which authorizes judges to order the removal of firearms from people they deem a threat to themselves or others. That’s all good as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go particularly far.
Gun-safety advocates expect the president to shortly announce that the administration will attempt to use regulation to narrow the currently nebulous definition of private sellers, whose gun sales aren’t subject to federal background checks, at least not under national law. That would be more significant; though there is no authoritative figure, estimates are that at least one in eight gun purchases comes without a background check.
The president also called for Congress to outlaw assault-style weapons, ban large capacity magazines, and eliminate the immunity from liability that gun manufacturers enjoy. He further urged lawmakers to close the “gun-show” loophole that allows so-called private sellers to peddle firearms without background checks and the provision that lets a gun sale go forward if the FBI hasn’t completed a background check in three days. Sadly, all that will be a struggle to accomplish at the national level.
The best hope is for universal background checks for commercial gun purchases, which essentially means those between strangers. Such a measure enjoys strong support from the public; legislation extending those checks to Internet and gun show sales by private sellers would have passed in 2013, save for the Senate filibuster. It got 54 votes, but not the 60 required to survive a filibuster.
That measure was co-sponsored by Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Manchin has stoutly resisted calls to eliminate the filibuster, but he could let his GOP friends know that if real progress can’t be made on background checks, it will become harder for him to play Horatius at the bridge on that matter.
If Democrats could get near-universal background checks nationally, that would be a noteworthy victory. That said, the maximum realistic hope for new national laws barely meets the minimum standard for real progress.
More is politically achievable — and should be made a priority — at the state level. Nine states plus the District of Columbia regulate ghost guns, while the Charleston loophole is closed in 20 plus D.C.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, rattles off a list of wins since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre: 13 additional states have passed or strengthened background checks, bringing the total to 21; 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed red flag laws, for a total of 19; and 29 states plus D.C. have strengthened law to keep guns from domestic abusers.
“Early on, we realized that Congress is not where this begins, it is where it ends,” said Watts, adding that gun-safety activists must do “the unglamorous, heavy-lifting, grass-roots activism in state houses and board rooms, because that is how you effect change in this country.”
There’s ample room for improvement, even in New England.
Massachusetts, which has the nation’s lowest per capita rate of gun deaths, requires a firearms license necessary to purchase guns — and grants local law enforcement a say in whether an applicant receives such a license. To buy either a pistol or a long gun, a person first must apply to the local police chief for a license; the chief can deny an applicant’s request if, based on reliable information, he or she deems the applicant a risk to public safety (or to himself). It’s local police, after all, who are most likely to be aware of a person’s violent inclinations or previous encounters with the law. That decision is appealable in court. The licensing system is a large part of what makes this state’s laws so effective, says John Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence.
A ban on military-style assault weapons is also more likely to pass in some states, as are red-flag laws to allow the temporary removal of firearms from owners judicially deemed to be a danger to others or themselves.
In Massachusetts, Rosenthal says gun-violence-prevention advocates have a new goal: Ban the in-state production of assault weapons, which already cannot be legally sold here. That would mean, for example, that Springfield-based Smith & Wesson, a division of American Outdoor Brands, could not produce military-style assault rifles for sale in other states at its large Springfield facility, where its long guns and pistols are manufactured.
Like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have quite good laws. Maine and New Hampshire generally get failing grades, as did Vermont until a planned school shooting was narrowly averted in 2018. That spurred a change of position on the part of previously anti-gun control Republican Governor Phil Scott, who has since signed laws to ban bump stocks, which increase the firing rate of semi-automatic rifles, and to extend background checks to most private sales, restrict magazine size, raise the purchase age for guns from 18 to 21, and allow the removal of guns from those considered dangerous or liable to commit domestic violence.
Gun zealots denounced Scott as a traitor, but he won re-election last fall by a staggering 41 percentage point margin. In Vermont, gun-violence-prevention activists are now hoping to enhance the legal tools for removing guns from those subject to restraining orders and to impose a waiting period for gun purchases as a way to combat the state’s high rate of suicide by gun, says Seton Mcllroy, lead person with the Vermont chapter of Moms Demand Action.
In New Hampshire, a red-flag law has passed the legislature last year, only to be vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu. With the Granite State legislature now in GOP hands, progress seems unlikely for the next couple of years. There, gun-safety advocates are fighting an effort by conservatives to expand the state’s stand-your-ground statute to vehicles.
But In Maine, gun-safety advocates are hoping to make some important changes. The state legislature has a new, bipartisan, bicameral Gun Safety Caucus, which is looking at a range of gun-related matters.
Vicki Doudera, the Democratic representative from Camden who chairs the caucus, says it is possible to be both pro-gun-safety and pro-Second Amendment.
“My goal is to find common ground,” she said. “Respect our outdoor heritage and maintain responsible gun ownership while keeping Maine people safe.”
For example, she has sponsored an amendment to the state’s child protection act requiring the safe storage of firearms in any home with children; as a complement, the caucus is backing a bill to exempt gun safes or trigger and barrel locks from the Maine sales tax. Overall, caucus members have a common-sense agenda: banning bump stocks; outlawing 3D and ghost guns; letting municipalities prohibit guns at polling places; and empowering judges to restrict access to guns during court harassment proceedings.
In 2016, a ballot question that would have imposed background checks on almost all gun sales failed in Maine amid concerns it would keep gun owners from loaning their rifles to family members. But caucus members are hoping to close some of the unchecked private-sale loopholes by requiring background checks for all gun-show sales as well as sales through publications like Uncle Henry’s or digital gun-sale sites. Doudera notes this irony: Under the status quo, gun owners can sell without a background check to strangers they don’t trust sufficiently to accept payment by personal check.
Despite the 2016 ballot-question loss in Maine, that has proved a productive avenue other places. That same year, Washington state passed a background-check measure with 59 percent of the vote. So, too, did Nevada; though that initiative seemed to have eviscerated when the state attorney general said he wouldn’t enforce it, elected policymakers subsequently enacted a legislative ban.
It’s just another policy-making possibility — and another reason that pursuing action at the state level is every bit as important as seeking change in Washington. State leaders ought to seize the moment and show Congress how it’s done.
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