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Progress and frustration in gun control

In a nation where more than 30,000 people are killed by guns every year and mass shootings are practically daily occurrences, it is harder and harder to get Americans to take note of the latest incident of gun violence. This week’s tragedy in Virginia came close. The murder of two young journalists on live TV is horrible enough; that the assailant made a video of the shootings — and posted it on social media – suggests we’ve entered some new, ghastly frontier in America’s sick gun culture.

Yet the response from gun control advocates was depressingly familiar: revulsion at the act itself, frustration that the steady drumbeat of gun violence continues and, above all, resignation that nothing can be done about it. It’s that last reaction that must not stand. Not only does real change rely on the continued efforts of gun control supporters, but this passive reaction ignores real and tangible signs of progress.


It’s often said that if America couldn’t pass gun control legislation after Newtown it never will. But on the same day of the Virginia shooting, Walmart, the largest seller of guns and ammunition in the country, announced it would stop selling semiautomatic assault rifles, including the AR-15, the gun used in the Sandy Hook and Aurora massacres. These are among the most popular firearms sold in the United States, making Walmart’s claim that the move is driven solely by consumer demand highly dubious.

While Newtown didn’t lead to new federal gun control efforts (even though a federal background check bill received more than majority support in the Senate), halting progress has occurred on the state level. According to Ted Alcorn, research director at Everytown for Gun Safety, “There has been meaningful and significant progress in states across the country.” In November 2014, Washington voters supported a ballot measure requiring background checks for gun buyers. Earlier this summer, Oregon passed a similar law, becoming the sixth state to enact background check legislation since Newtown. In 2016, Nevada and now likely Maine will have similar initiatives on the ballot.


Since 2013, 18 states, including red states like Alabama and South Carolina, have passed laws making it more difficult for domestic abusers to keep their guns.

The NRA is not giving up without a fight. But the organization’s recent push for expanded campus carry laws, even in K-12 schools, has borne little fruit. Only Texas passed such legislation this year. And bills pushing for the right to concealed carry without a permit were stopped in West Virginia, South Carolina, and Montana.

Cynics will argue that these moves are only a drop in the bucket — and they are right. Children as young as 1-year-old continue to find loaded weapons and fire them with tragic consequences. Domestic abusers continue to kill, as we saw this month in Houston with the murder of eight people, including six children. And innocent people continue to be murdered by disgruntled coworkers who face little challenge in buying a handgun. It’s hard to get excited about bills to expand background checks when events like these keep happening.

But throwing up our hands –
and ignoring signs of progress — is
exactly what the NRA and its supporters are counting on. The unfortunate reality is that change in America never comes quickly. It took a quarter century for same-sex marriage to become the law of the land; national health care had been a progressive goal for decades and, tragically, it might take as long for the national debate on gun violence to turn. But change is already afoot, and the fact that Hillary Clinton used the shooting in Virginia as an opportunity to talk about gun control suggests that the politics on this issue are slowly being transformed. If Alison Parker and Adam Ward are not to have died in vain, then the reaction to their deaths must not be apathy, but rather a redoubled effort to stop such tragedies from occurring in the future.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.