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OPINION

Even if Congress won’t act on gun safety, states can

Despite conservative claims to the contrary, tough gun laws work, as evidenced by the fact that states with strong gun statutes have much lower rates of gun violence.

During a press conference at Uvalde High School on Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke about the need for government "to find a way to target that mental health challenge and do something about it.”ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images

Watching the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, the second in two weeks, a believer in sensible gun laws can’t help but be struck by the desperate, disingenuous acts of deflection by those who oppose such measures.

One has become so reflexive as to be virtually knee-jerk. When another random, multi-victim murder occurs and someone cites that carnage as a reason better gun-safety laws are needed, right-wingers instantly start tsk-tsking and clucking and accusing that person of exploiting the tragedy.

That reproach has been a mainstay of prime time Fox News coverage of the slaughter of 21 people — 19 elementary school students and two adults — in Uvalde, Texas. And both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick sounded that note on Wednesday.

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That’s a ridiculous complaint. Proposing or advancing a remedy that would reduce the recurrence of these bloody events isn’t cynical or exploitative. It’s what responsible public servants and citizens should do.

Objecting to those attempts to address this problem under the guise of respecting the grieving is transparently empty sanctimony. But not just that. It’s also a delaying tactic, a way to keep from discussing a problem that plagues America until the urgency of the moment has passed. As such, it’s a rhetorical formulation that allows Second Amendment absolutists and gun-lobby-beholden pols to strike a note of sympathy without acknowledging the truth: They simply are not inclined to act on guns.

A second conservative deflection is to focus on mental health.

“Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge,” Abbott said on Wednesday. “We as a government need to find a way to target that mental health challenge and do something about it.”

Fox News host and conservative thought leader (!) Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has declared there is a mental health crisis in America. On Wednesday, an approving Carlson played a clip of now-deceased conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer positively recalling days when authorities would involuntarily institutionalize, and hospitals forcibly medicate, troubled people.

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But don’t be misled into thinking that conservatives are, or will somehow become, receptive to expanding government’s ability to keep someone from purchasing weapons based on mental health issues. Indeed, during Donald Trump’s term, they passed legislation reversing regulations issued by Barack Obama to do just that.

As currently constituted, that ability is tightly circumscribed. Since 1968 federal gun legislation, gun sales have been prohibited to people who were once involuntarily committed to a mental institution or “adjudicated as a mental defective.” That term includes those who have been found not guilty of criminal charges by reasons of insanity or judged mentally incompetent to stand trail.

As Texas officials noted on Wednesday, Salvador Ramos, the accused Robb Elementary School shooter, had no criminal or mental health record. Thus the current legal standard for such a prohibition obviously played no role in keeping lethal weapons out of his hands. The same is apparently true with Payton Gendron, the white supremacist accused of killing 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket on May 14.

Meanwhile, the gun lobby has fought tenaciously against extending the reasons people can be prevented from buying weapons. Further, despite feints in that direction, the NRA has not even supported so-called red flag gun laws that would let a court authorize the removal of weapons from someone judged to present an imminent risk of harming themselves or others.

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There is a way to deny guns to mentally ill people whose history doesn’t trip the exclusionary standard, however, as well as to those who, for other reasons, are unfit for gun ownership, and that is to do what Massachusetts does. To purchase a gun, someone must both pass a background check and apply to the local police chief for a renewable license; the chief can reject an applicant if, based on reliable information, he or she deems that person to be a risk to public safety or to themselves. Without such a license, one can’t purchase or possess guns in Massachusetts. A chief’s denial is appealable in court, so due process is included.

If such a system had been in place in Texas, it’s very likely that, given his history of disturbing behavior, Ramos would have been denied the right to buy his weapons.

Despite conservative claims to the contrary, there is no doubt that tough gun laws work, as evidenced by the fact that states with strong gun statutes have much lower rates of gun violence.

But those laws are anathema to the gun lobby and to Second Amendment absolutists.

A Massachusetts-like system obviously won’t be adopted nationally. But it can be done on a state-by-state basis. Indeed, a few states have taken a similar approach. Further, it can be accomplished by ballot question in states that have that direct-democracy provision.

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And that’s why the focus of renewed efforts shouldn’t just be on Washington, but on state capitals as well.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.