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Despite rhetoric of inaction, states can help prevent mass shootings

An orphaned 19-year-old with a troubled past and his own AR-15 rifle was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday morning following the deadliest school shooting in the United States in five years.
An orphaned 19-year-old with a troubled past and his own AR-15 rifle was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday morning following the deadliest school shooting in the United States in five years.

It’s mourning in America again. And, sadly, we know what that means: A time of empty platitudes and deflection from America’s governing party, as Republicans try to avoid doing anything that might upset the gun lobby.

Indeed, you can see that already with what is being discussed — and what isn’t — in the aftermath of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

Look at what President Trump had to say on Thursday. He talked of addressing mental illness and finding ways to keep schools safe. No mention of gun laws.

No doubt we’ll also hear calls for armed guards at every school, and perhaps even armed teachers. Those, after all, are favored nostrums of Second Amendment absolutists.


View the mental health discussion skeptically. For all the talk about identifying and intervening with people whose mental health problems might make them prone to commit these crimes, that approach eventually hits this roadblock: Under current federal law, one must have been “adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution” to be denied the right to purchase a gun on mental health grounds. That means that “a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority has determined that the applicant, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, mental illness, incompetence, condition, or disease, is a danger to himself or herself or to others, or lacks the mental capacity to conduct or manage his or her own affairs.”

That law could be changed, but doing so would take a real commitment to crafting a system with more latitude to deny gun purchases. Last year, Congress passed and Trump signed a law nixing an Obama-era regulation that had expanded the number of people with mental illness who could be denied a gun by about 75,000.


Now look at what isn’t being talked about. This was the mass murder of 17 people with an assault weapon capable of directing rapid and devastating fire. Will there be any serious consideration by national Republicans of restoring a national ban on those weapons?

Of course not. Indeed, on Thursday, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, took to the Senate floor to make the tired and specious argument that tougher gun laws wouldn’t prevent this kind of carnage. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. It does, however, mean that the struggle for tougher gun laws should take place on the state level as well as in Washington.

Here’s the reality of gun violence in America. The states with the toughest gun laws have lower rates of gun deaths than states with lax laws. Florida is a lax-law state. No permit or license is necessary to purchase a gun.

So what makes for effective state laws? One key: a regulatory system that expands the reason why a would-be gun buyer will fail a background check beyond those contained in the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Massachusetts, a strict state, also has a ban on high-powered semiautomatic weapons like folding or telescoping stocks, pistol grips, barrel shrouds, and large-capacity magazines, which make those weapons particularly lethal instruments of destruction.

Effective gun statutes also give local police chiefs considerable discretionary authority to deny an applicant the right to purchase or carry certain types of weapons, on the theory that local law enforcement is best equipped to know or learn which applicants aren’t suitable for gun ownership.


A final thought: The FBI will and should come under scrutiny for failing to locate the eventual gunman after receiving a tip about a YouTube channel post (apparently) made by someone with the same name — Nikolas Cruz — saying: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

How could that be? We need to know more about the reasons for that failure.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.