Despite outcry over mass shootings, don’t look to Republicans for meaningful gun safety measures

Residents of Dayton, Ohio, made their feelings clear during a visit by Donald Trump.

The National Rifle Association might be losing money and its stranglehold on political influence, but it’s still got a toehold in the White House. And that means its $30 million investment to back the 2016 election of Donald Trump is paying off.

No matter how incensed and grieving the public is after the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which killed 31 people and wounded 50 others, don’t expect any serious gun safety legislation to advance at the federal level.

The gun lobby group lost $55 million in revenue in 2018. It shut down production of its online media arm, NRATV. Its chief lobbyist was forced to resign. The NRA and its longtime ad agency are suing each other. The group’s tax-exempt status is under investigation in New York. But they’ve still got the ear of the president of the United States.

The mass shootings have highlighted many issues that need to be addressed: White supremacy, domestic terrorism, racism, the stoking of these ideas on social media platforms, domestic violence, Trump’s incendiary language, and mental illness. Donald Trump and Republicans would prefer that the conversation sticks to mental illness and (laughably) video games. Except for video games, all of these topics deserve discussion and action.

What’s missing from that list are the guns themselves. But the only movement on any serious gun safety laws will come at state levels, if at all. Whatever might pass in Congress — if it even does — will likely be minimal at best.

Democrats and gun control groups have been increasingly forceful about the need for action against gun violence, and there are signs of a few cracks in the GOP wall against any gun regulation.

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine is proposing both background checks and “red-flag” laws, which would allow people to petition a judge to remove firearms from a person deemed a threat to himself or others. But with a solidly GOP legislature, he’s not likely to get any further than did the previous Republican governor, John Kasich, who backed red-flag laws as well.

GOP Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, whose congressional district includes Dayton, tweeted that he, too, backs red-flag laws — and a ban on the sale of military-style weapons. Republican senators now voicing support for red-flag laws are South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Florida’s Marco Rubio, South Dakota’s John Thune, and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who voted against a 2013 bipartisan bill to expand background checks, said, “I think we should look at everything.”

It’s easy to see why a red-flag law can pick up support, because it plays into the “mental illness” narrative the GOP wants to push. Trump mentioned the idea of red-flag laws and background checks in a White House address, giving Republicans some cover. That is, until he talked to NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre. When Democratic Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, whose congressional district includes El Paso, requested a phone call with Trump to talk about the El Paso victims, he refused to speak to her. But he had plenty of time for the NRA.

The Dayton shooter, Connor Betts, was killed by police, so pinning down a motive for him is hard, but signs indicate some mental health issues. An ex-girlfriend said she and Betts bonded over their shared struggle with mental illness and that he had a fascination with mass shootings. She also said Betts had a dangerous fixation on a past girlfriend, which could be indicative of a domestic violence streak — something that perpetrators of the deadliest recent mass shooters have in common. (There were blaring headlines about his “left-wing” and anti-police Twitter feed, but authorities found no indication that his politics had any connection with the killings.) Acquaintances said Betts had a history of having a “death list” and a “rape list,” which temporarily got him kicked out of high school.

On the other hand, the El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, with his diatribe against immigrants, started shooting and killing because of his racial hatred, stoked by Trump’s words and tweets. After all, he admitted that his goal was to shoot as many Mexicans as possible.

Once you get past motive, though, what the two shooters had in common were the weapons they used — weapons that should never be in the hands of civilians to begin with. They both used legally purchased, semi-automatic, high-caliber assault-style rifles with high-capacity magazines. The Dayton shooter killed and wounded his victims in 30 seconds.

We’ve all seen this show before: an awful mass shooting, demands for gun safety regulations, the “too soon to talk about it” excuses from Republicans, and measured proposals for action such as universal background checks, the kind of gun reform backed by more than 90 percent of Americans. But the NRA’s ownership of the Republican Party always has stopped such common-sense gun legislation from moving forward.

Even the red-flag legislation that GOP senators are touting wouldn’t be universal. The bill Lindsey Graham is proposing would offer federal grants to states to help them enact and enforce red-flag laws, also sometimes called “extreme risk protection orders.” Seventeen states and the District of Columbia currently have such laws. And rather than cut down on mass shootings, research shows that red-flag laws are most effective in stopping suicides, which still make up two-thirds of gun deaths.

The NRA still objects to state red-flag laws. Any such orders “at a minimum must include strong due process protections, require treatment and include penalties against those who make frivolous claims,” said NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen. When Trump flirted with the idea of background checks, the NRA warned him that his voting base would be displeased with that action.

But without a universal background check, a person exhibiting worrisome behavior in one state could still buy a gun in another state. After all, the killer in the recent mass shooting in Gilroy, California, was able to circumvent California gun laws by buying his gun in Nevada.

Recently, federal legislation attempting to cut gun violence has died at the Senate’s door. Even Twitter hashtags such as #MassacreMitch aren’t likely to change Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s mind in bringing up House-passed bills on universal background checks and extending the FBI review period for background checks on firearm purchases.

Democrats and gun control groups support red-flag laws but insist they don’t go far enough. Bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would go a lot further in cutting down the carnage of a mass shooting. According to a New York Times story, Democrats would like to incorporate a Senate-passed red-flag bill into the House-passed gun safety measures.

“The idea of a red flag law is O.K., but it doesn’t substitute” for a background checks bill, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s not enough.”

All of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have proposals on gun safety. All support universal background checks. Many back bans on semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. Some propose either a voluntary or mandatory assault weapon buyback program.

A new study published this spring in the Journal of Internal Medicine evaluated 10 kinds of state gun safety laws and found that three are the most effective in cutting gun deaths in the U.S. No gun safety law will stop all killing from guns, but the three with the most success are universal background checks, bans on violent offenders purchasing guns, and “may issue” laws, which give police discretion on issuing concealed-carry permits. States with all three of those laws had a 36 percent lower homicide rate than states without such laws.

According to a story on the study in CityLab:

Universal background checks are associated with a nearly 15 percent drop in the homicide rate. Measures that prohibit people who committed a violent crime from owning a handgun are associated with an even larger reduction in homicide, 18 percent. Conversely, requiring police to approve concealed-carry permits unless the applicant meets explicitly stated exclusion criteria — so-called “shall-issue” laws — are associated with a nearly 10 percent higher homicide rate. None of the other seven firearm laws had a statistically significant association with the homicide rate when controlling for other factors.

In other words, when police cannot deny concealed-carry permits instead of using discretion, there is a higher homicide rate. Both Texas and Ohio have relatively lax gun regulations, including “shall-issue” laws.

We know the current Senate won’t pass the kind of gun safety legislation that most Americans want, and we know Trump would never sign it. But with the vast majority of Americans supporting universal background checks and research showing that such laws are effective in cutting the homicide rate, isn’t it time for the Senate to pass one damn bill? Over to you, #MassacreMitch.

Americans are ready for that law. The nearly 6 million members and supporters of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who regularly make their voices heard in state legislatures nationwide and who successfully elected Democratic lawmakers in favor of gun safety in 2018, are ready for such a law. The students who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who turned their anger and sorrow into a national movement against gun violence and a massive voter registration drive of young voters, are ready, too.

They’re ready for Mitch McConnell and for any other Republican lawmakers standing in their way.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Aug. 11, 2019.

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