The big question arising in the wake of the horrific shootings of 20 first graders and six educators in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 was whether anything would change. Would the forces arrayed against sensible legislation be too powerful to overcome? Was it futile to hope we could keep high-powered weapons out of the hands of madmen? Would our elected officials, including the president, dare to even try?
Developments less than two months later indicate that this time things are different. First, state legislatures and governors have taken decisive action, such as in neighboring New York. Second, President Obama quickly directed Vice President Joe Biden to convene a task force to study gun safety measures, and the vice president held hearings and returned a comprehensive package of measures, including possible legislation, back to the president ahead of schedule.
Despite widespread misinformation, nothing in the package of comprehensive measures the Obama administration has proposed -- or already enacted by executive order -- would take away anyone's guns.
An assault weapons ban, if adopted, would not be retroactive. Still, it looks likely that Congress, due to opposition by Republicans and conservative Democrats, will not adopt a ban on the manufacture and sale of combat-style assault weapons such as the AR-15 used in the Newtown killings. The U.S. had such a ban from 1994 to 2004.
The Republican Party has swung far to the right since then, however. Back in 1994, Republican icon Ronald Reagan urged passage of the assault weapons ban, but you won't hear about this now from anyone on the right, including his son Michael, a syndicated columnist. Similarly, you won't hear on Fox News that former President George H.W. Bush resigned from the National Rifle Association in 1995 after the NRA's Wayne LaPierre called federal ATF agents "jack booted thugs."
In fact, back in 1999 even LaPierre himself supported background checks on gun purchasers. Now, he says a comprehensive system to conduct background checks on all gun sales would lead to a "registry." In his paranoid world view, this would lead to the threat of government confiscation.
Never mind that the Obama proposal does not include creating a registry of gun owners based on background checks, and that even the information collected in the current inadequate system is not used to create a database, LaPierre is sure there will be a registry.
When looking at the idea of eligibility requirements for owning guns, it's helpful to look at an even more fundamental American right, the right to mobility, to go where one pleases in the manner one pleases.
This right is so fundamental that the founding fathers and the framers of the U.S. Constitution no doubt took it for granted that there was no need to spell it out in the Bill of Rights. Yet, no one in the U.S. can legally drive without being registered for and receiving a driver's license, yet few fear the government will soon show up to confiscate their vehicles.
Fortunately, conducting background checks on all gun purchases with no exceptions has great public support and has a good chance of passage by Congress and being signed into law. Current loopholes for gun shows and private sales allow 40 percent of firearm sales happen without oversight.
Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made the case for background checks on Jan. 30 when opening hearings on gun violence.
"I know gun-store owners in Vermont. They follow the law and conduct background checks to block the conveyance of guns to those who should not have them. They wonder why others who sell guns do not have to follow these same protective rules. I agree with these responsible business owners," Leahy said. "If we can all agree that criminals and those adjudicated as mentally ill should not buy firearms, why should we not try to plug the loopholes in the law that allow them to buy guns without background checks?"
Leahy himself has introduced another commonsense reform with a good chance of passage.
The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 specifically prohibits the straw purchase of firearms and strengthens the law prohibiting material false statements when buying a gun. The bill establishes tough penalties for anyone who purchases a firearm or ammunition with the intent to transfer it to someone else, particularly in cases involving crimes of violence or drug trafficking, and expands existing trafficking law to make it a crime for an individual to smuggle firearms out of the United States.
Leahy also voiced support for prompt hearings on President Obama's nomination of a director for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The president until 2006 had the power to appoint the head of this bureau, but Congress that year changed the law to require Senate confirmation, under pressure from the gun lobby. For similar reasons, senators favoring the gun lobby have blocked appointment of a permanent director since then and have also done their best to keep the agency underfunded.
Ideally, we would like to see an improved federal assault weapons ban and a federal law to limit the amount of rounds in any semi-automatic rifle magazine. We urge the president, sympathetic members of Congress, and the public to keep hammering away for these. But even if these two key reforms cannot pass in the current Congress, universal background checks, the anti-trafficking bill, and strengthening the ATF may well do so, meaning that real reform would result in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, unlike so many previous mass shootings.
~ Mark E. Rondeau