For the first time in a generation, the U.S. Senate is poised to pass legislation to address the gun violence that plagues the country. It should be a moment of unabashed triumph, or at least relief, after decades of stalled action. Instead, there’s a sense of resignation toward the bipartisan framework announced on Saturday.
A large part of that lack of enthusiasm comes from how little of this supposed gun bill actually deals with guns. Only five of the nine points in the proposal outlined over the weekend deal directly with access to firearms. Of those, two involve “crack downs on criminals” who violate existing laws on purchasing and selling guns.
Only five of the nine points in the bipartisan proposal outlined over the weekend deal directly with access to firearms.
The other three points are more promising — it’s likely that most of them will save lives if passed into law. Foremost among those is an expansion of the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to finally close the so-called boyfriend loophole. As things stand, people convicted of domestic violence abuse and with domestic violence-related restraining orders against them are barred from buying guns — but only if they’re married to their victims.
A 2017 federal study found that from 2006 to 2015, “licensed dealers sold about 6,200 guns to people with domestic violence convictions and about 550 guns to people subject to a domestic violence-related protection order” before an FBI check was completed. That number doesn’t include, though, all the jilted exes or current lovers that have been allowed to buy guns.
The proposal also would mandate an enhanced background check for potential gun buyers under 21, allowing for a review of juvenile and mental health records. Another provision would incentivize states to pass “red flag laws” that require the state to step in to remove guns from people deemed a significant danger to themselves or others by a court.
In an ideal world, we’d see even stronger language in each of those areas. There should be a national red flag law that requires gun confiscation, especially given how many states will likely refuse to pass one; the legal age to buy an assault rifle should be raised to 21, same as it is with handguns, as none of the concerning behavior from the Uvalde shooter would have come up in an extended background check; and there should be guidance to prosecutors and judges about exactly which domestic violence crimes should require an automatic inclusion in the NICS database.
It can at least be argued, though, that the senators’ potential solutions are each good, needed first steps. The rest of the points in the framework, though, give an undue credence to GOP talking points that look for panaceas that will reduce gun violence without addressing guns. That’s especially the case for a provision to boost programs that focus on “school safety.” Given how much money was spent to harden the Uvalde school system and how potentially traumatizing active shooter trainings have proven to be, this feels more like a distraction than a solution.
The remaining programs would be fine if decoupled from the “gun violence prevention” framing. More investment in programs that let kids and families in crisis access therapy via telehealth is unquestionably good. The same for boosting the funding for in-school mental health services and mental health and suicide prevention programs more broadly. The fact that they have to be shoehorned into a proposal that should be focused on keeping guns out of people’s hands says a lot about the country’s usual disregard for these issues.
The Senate’s framework is particularly unimpressive when compared to the Protecting Our Kids Act, which the House passed last week. The Senate’s proposed legislation doesn’t include measures to raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles to 21; nor does it establish new gun storage safety standards. The bill passed by the House includes a ban on large-capacity ammo feeders and funds to buy them back from their owners, but the Senate’s proposed bill does not. House Democrats have begun begrudgingly offering their support for a future Senate bill even without those conditions but are aware that it falls far short of their hopes.
Grumbling aside, members of Congress can count just as well as I can and as well as the Senate’s leaders can.
But grumbling aside, those members of Congress can count just as well as I can and as well as the Senate’s leaders can. The framework on the table has the backing of 10 Republicans, the amount needed to get past the filibuster. It seems unlikely that enough Senate Democrats will abandon ship to sink the bill, given that both some of the most moderate members of the caucus and those most committed to gun safety legislation have signed on as well.
This isn’t the gun bill that America deserves. Not after decades of death, not after gun violence has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year, not after burying the children who were attending school and Black Americans who were grocery shopping and Asian Americans who were trying to make a living and Jewish Americans trying to worship. There is too much left on the table to claim that this bill will make the dent in gun violence that will bring America more in line with the rest of the world.
But change has to start somewhere, and if this bill does not manage to pass, the alternative right now is literally nothing. That can’t be the case, not again. No, this isn’t the bill that America deserves — but it looks like it’s the only one we can get.