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US can find agreement on common-sense gun policies

The investigation into Wade Michael Page, the apparent white supremacist who opened fire on a Sikh temple near Milwaukee on Sunday, is just beginning. It’s not entirely clear how he obtained his weapons — whether through illegal channels or legally, via a system with all too many holes. That is the same system that allowed James Holmes, who killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, to amass a 6,000-round arsenal, including an assault rifle, a high capacity “drum magazine,” and more.

There is an obvious need for tighter gun restrictions. It is well within the capacity of the political system to produce legislation to monitor and restrict the weapons used in such mass killings, but the political headwinds against it are so strong that neither presidential candidate has taken it up. In that leadership vacuum, it may still be possible to find consensus on a few measures to make it easier for police to track potential killers, and limit their ability to commit mass murder.


Background checks. Since 1994, gun buyers have been required to pass a background check, a policy that has kept millions of criminals and individuals with severe mental health problems from acquiring firearms. But not every state enters all relevant mental health records in the FBI’s database. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, it emerged that a court order determining that the shooter was mentally ill had not been entered into the database. That finding led to upgrades, backed by both the NRA and gun control advocates, but a report last November by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that many states, including Massachusetts, were still lagging; Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, and Rhode Island had submitted no mental health records at all. It’s time for all states to get with the program.

Clip size. Holmes had a high-capacity clip, capable of firing 100 rounds. The assault rifle ban, which expired in 2004, limited clips to 10 rounds. These larger clips serve no legitimate hunting or self-defense purpose. Ideally, the whole assault rifle ban should be revived, but restoring the prohibition on high-capacity clips would be a compromise that even committed defenders of gun rights should be willing to consider.

Leadership. For six years, the ATF, the agency with primary responsibility for overseeing the gun industry, has had no permanent head. Congress appears willing to let the agency stumble along, simultaneously starving it of funds and depriving it of leadership — and then holding its missteps against it. It’s time for the president to name, and Congress to approve, a leader for the agency, so that existing gun laws can be enforced with more vigor.

In the face of the horrors in Wisconsin and Colorado, these are, admittedly, small steps. But taking them would be a start, and maybe a basis for further action. Curbing gun violence will be a long struggle; it’s up to political leaders to show that even on such a polarizing issue, they can work toward a day when mass shootings are history.