Jim Hartman: Only a few actions can be taken on gun violence
The popular public outcry for Congress to “Do something” on gun violence needs to face a hard truth: There’s only so much the federal government can do.
In 2018, the Rand Corp., a respected public policy think tank — no sycophants for the National Rifle Association — conducted a survey of the relevant academic research and failed to find a single gun-control policy that had been proven to reduce mass shootings in the United States. “We found no qualifying studies showing that any of the 13 policies we studied decreased mass shootings,” the report bluntly concluded.
So what “common ground” actions can be taken by a Democratic House, a Republican Senate requiring 60 votes to approve legislation, and President Trump to reduce gun violence consistent with Second Amendment protections?
In 2018, members of Congress came together in a bipartisan manner to “Fix NICS,” the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background System. Sen. John Cornyn introduced Fix NICS in response to a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, by a perpetrator who passed a background check in spite of four disqualifying events — information the Air Force failed to supply NICS.
The bill requires local, state and federal agencies share “all relevant records” with NICS and submit plans for compliance. The legislation won in the House, passed the Senate with 77 cosponsors including 32 Republicans, and was signed by President Trump. The legislation had support from both the NRA and gun control advocates.
As a result, millions of records have been added to the federal background check system. The NICS database has added almost 6 million records since April 2018.
Currently, bipartisan proposals from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) for expanded background checks and by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to extend grants to states enacting “red-flag” laws are the two main topics of conversation.
Federal law requires background checks on purchases only from federally licensed gun dealers. The Manchin-Toomey bill attempts to find middle ground by expanding the checks to gun shows and Internet sales, but not requiring them of family members and friends giving or selling guns to each other. The bill explicitly outlaws any national gun registry.
In 2013, the Manchin-Toomey bill won 54 Senate votes, six votes short of the 60 vote supermajority required for passage. Only four GOP senators voted for Manchin-Toomey, but public opinion on guns has shifted. The bill covers all commercial sales but is less sweeping than the House Democrats’ bill providing for “universal” background checks.
The Graham-Blumenthal proposal would provide grants to states for “red-flag’ laws, allowing states to temporarily take away firearms from people who have shown they may pose a risk to themselves or others.
Nevada is one of 17 states to have a “red-flag” law. It passed the 2019 Legislature and goes into effect in January. The Nevada law provides that any request to take away a person’s firearm has to be made by a “family or household member” or a law enforcement officer and approved by a judge.
The National Rifle Association supports the “red-flag” law “concept” as does President Trump.
It’s acknowledged that background checks would have done little to deter any of the mass shootings to date. Evidence shows “red-flag” laws stop suicides, but it’s unclear if they prevent mass shootings.
Democratic presidential aspirant Beto O’Rourke’s rant to “take” AR-15s and AK-47s from lawful owners was a call for confiscation of firearms. His endorsement of “mandatory gun buybacks,” a position shared by Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, seems like an alarmist fundraising pitch from the NRA rather than a serious campaign promise.
In reaction, Republican lawmakers are loath to support Democrats’ proposals to revive the 2004 expired ban on military-style firearms, place restrictions on magazine size, impose voluntary gun buybacks, or enact a national gun licensing program.
Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa.