Perspective: On gun law reform, this time could — and should — be different
A pro-family culture cannot allow acts of terror aimed at children to go unanswered, even if the tools at our disposal are imperfect
Uvalde, Texas, now joins Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland in the heart-rending litany of names that conjure up images of heartache. Candid cafeteria snapshots have yet again become in memoriam photos. Family life seems a little more fragile and a little more fearful, plagued by the knowledge that the odds of “what if,” while still low, just got a little higher.
The FBI defines an “active shooter event” as when one or more individuals actively attempt to kill people in a populated area. In schools and synagogues, workplaces and government buildings, active shooter incidents have become more frequent and more deadly over the past two decades.
In 2001, the U.S. averaged about one every other month. A decade later, it was once a month. Last year, the average was more than one active shooter event per week. Waiting for the next city unlucky enough to become shorthand for anguish should be unacceptable. The Republican Party has been increasingly billing itself as the parents’ party and is starting to take seriously what a policy agenda that put families first might look like. But the act of terrorism that is a school shooting deserves a place on that agenda as well.
We may not think of active shooters in schools as terrorists under the classic definition, as they tend to lack a political motivation. But high-profile bombings and attacks resonate because they inject a little more apprehension into our routines as we go about our day, even if, empirically, the overall risk of terrorism remains relatively low.
Similarly, mass shootings introduce a small sliver of fear into simple acts, like dropping a child off for school. The psychological toll parents bear may not reflect the true actuarial risk, but can’t be rationalized away. Treating mass shootings, particularly at schools, as acts of terror should encourage conservatives who consider themselves pro-family, anti-abortion and pro-gun to consider the tradeoffs between those values.
There are signs that Congress might be at a tipping point. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, are leading talks that could see some modest steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
The lowest-hanging fruit in a bipartisan approach might be so-called red flag laws, which give judges the authority to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to themselves or others. As The Dispatch’s David French pointed out, an Arizona study found that red flag laws, properly enforced, would have thrown up roadblocks to notorious mass shooters from acquiring their weapons.
These laws are worth passing. But they, like expanded background checks, probably cannot bear the weight their supporters would like them to. Calibrating the scope of the law to snag would-be gun owners with ill intent, while not ensnaring many who pose no threat to others, is difficult — and perhaps impossible — work. Conservative journalist Stephen Gutowski, who focuses on the Second Amendment, wrote that the man who attacked shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket earlier this month “should not have been able to buy the gun he used,” but found a way regardless.
Red flag laws would be especially useful, however, when there is concern about a family member or friend with depressive or suicidal tendencies, and when removing a firearm from the home may remove temptation. Indeed, there is some suggestive evidence that localities that have passed red flag laws have seen a decrease in deaths by suicide, even though homicides remained unchanged. The laws can save lives, but their ability to prevent mass shootings remains uncertain.
Similarly, certain technical suggestions on offer, such as limiting the capacity of magazines, can be circumvented by an adept and motivated would-be shooter. Talk of banning “assault weapons” usually runs aground as soon as the conversation turns to defining what does and does not qualify for the label, and the fact that many guns can be easily modified to avoid categorization. The Rand Corp. failed to find convincing evidence that state-level bans on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines was linked to lower gun deaths. On the other hand, there is some evidence that expanding background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases may reduce firearm homicides on the margins.
These ideas may make their way into a legislative package designed to be a lowest-common-denominator approach to curbing gun violence. This wouldn’t be the first time; in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, a bipartisan bill to expand background checks was put on the table but scuttled amid attacks from the right.
This time could, and should, be different. Ideologically, the Republican Party has shifted a lot since 2013. The NRA is a shadow of its former self, and while the GOP will always be the party of the Second Amendment, the death toll from active shooter events has continued to rise, regularly topping 100 victims a year (without including gun-related homicides related to gang violence and other incidents). This has to change the political calculus.
A new breed of conservatives, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, and Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, have talked about the need to promote the common good and a working-class Republican Party that cares about parents. Putting that vision into practice should mean engaging in good faith on policies that would reduce gun access for some, instead of falling back on tired old suggestions like arming teachers.
Engaging in these talks might require some political courage. But voters can support politicians interested in these common-ground measures by standing against the demagoguery of groups warning ominously about a plot to take away their guns. (Political scientist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University found that socially conservative religious voters, in particular, may be more likely to support additional restrictions around guns than their more-secular peers.)
There are no easy answers to the problem of mass shootings. Even a wide-ranging slate of background checks and red flag laws would leave America with the highest number of guns per capita in the world. But a pro-parent policy agenda, and a pro-family culture, cannot allow acts of terror aimed at children to go unanswered, even if the tools at our disposal are imperfect.
A political party concerned with parents’ well-being should make a priority of trying to ensure that no more parents have to congregate in a parking lot, waiting to learn that when they dropped their child off at school that morning, they did so for the last time. Combining expanded background checks and cooling-off periods with additional school safety grants and funding for mental health services would clearly fit within a common-good approach to policymaking. And it would be the kind of bill that Republicans serious about parents’ well-being should champion.
Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C.