This time feels different.
The grotesque shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14 was followed by the usual cycle of shock, horror, recrimination, and the clichéd “thoughts and prayers.”
But this time, unlike previous mass shootings, we heard something new: Anger and activism by the survivors and efforts to call out by name elected officials who are standing in the way of sensible action to help.
The students at this high school have reacted to the shooting with a breathtaking display of determination, staging protests, giving speeches, and making clear that this is not an acceptable way to live. They seem to have struck a chord with high school students across the country, students who were born after the Columbine massacre and have known nothing but lockdown drills, school security, and a relentless pattern of gun violence on school campuses.
The fact that these brave and articulate young people are on the cusp of voting age does not seem to have escaped the notice of elected officials, from local level all the way to the White House.
We should heed their words and take reasonable steps to head off not just these spectacular mass killings, but to end the depressing and largely unreported plague of smaller incidents that claim the lives of at least 90 people every day in the United States. These people die for many reasons—by accident, suicide, domestic violence, gang activity, and, yes, mass shootings – but the one uniting theme is that they all die at the business end of a firearm.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are measures that we can take that would help keep guns out of the hands of people who are angry, depressed, desperate, deranged or just plain stupid or impulsive. These are measures that are clearly constitutional and in no way infringe on the Second Amendment.
How do we know? The Supreme Court has told us.
In the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court for the first time confirmed that the Second Amendment gives Americans the individual right to own and carry firearms, absent any kind of military duty. But in saying so, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
“Like most rights,” Scalia wrote, in demolishing the absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment, “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
So what is to be done?
We met this week with Rep. Mike Thompson, who has been a leader in this matter for decades, including chairing the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. He speaks from a position of authority – he is a lifelong hunter and sport shooter who owns multiple guns. He is also a decorated combat veteran who understands weapons – and their horrific effects on humans – in great detail.
He tells us – and we agree – that there are a series of measures on the table now that would improve the situation. Here are some, but by no means all, of the things we could do.
First, and most importantly, expand the national background check system. Currently federal law requires checks only for sales through registered dealers, leaving it to the states to regulate background checks at gun shows or in private transactions. Unfortunately many states are lax in this regulation, allowing prohibited persons to get weapons at shows or through online private sales.
Second, improve the national database on which the background check system is based. Many states have not devoted the resources to entering information on convictions and mental health diagnoses that would disqualify someone from buying a firearm. As we learned after the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in November, many federal agencies, including the U.S. military, have not lived up to their obligation to enter relevant information into the database. Congress could provide funding to improve the reporting by the states and could hold federal agencies accountable for meeting their reporting obligations.
Third, Congress could end the absurd prohibition on federal funds or scientists being involved in research into gun violence as a public health issue. Nothing could be a more clear threat to public health than the current epidemic of gun violence, and reliable data is essential in formulating public policy.
Fourth, Congress could give federal agencies the clear authority to ban accessories that increase the lethality of weapons. The “bump-stocks” that allowed the Las Vegas shooter at a music festival in October to increase his firing rate to near-automatic speed are perfectly legal because current federal law doesn’t give agencies the power to ban such accessories.
These are not extreme measures. These are politically achievable proposals that fit neatly into the Constitutional framework outlined by Justice Scalia. These are not a prelude to confiscation of weapons and anyone who says otherwise either doesn’t understand the law or has an extreme agenda.
Critics will no doubt argue that laws alone cannot stop a madman or criminal from killing, or that the number of weapons in circulation, estimated at 300 million in the United States, makes it too late to take effective action to curb gun-related violence.
We disagree. While it is true that guns in themselves don’t kill people, it is also true that people with guns kill people. Lots of them. Every day.
And just because these laws won’t stop all mass shootings, or reduce the flood of weapons in circulation, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them. Just because we can’t fix everything doesn’t mean we should therefore do nothing.