After every mass shooting, the nation trudges through the same familiar steps. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims. Don’t politicize a tragedy by trying to stop the next one. OK, propose something, but unless it would have prevented the last incident, we’re not interested. Eventually, the debate dies down — until next time.
The massacre in Las Vegas might be an exception to that pattern. For once, there actually is a proposal that would make it more difficult for the next Stephen Paddock to kill and injure so many people: a ban on “bump stocks” and other devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire more rapidly than normal. Without bump stocks, Paddock still could have killed dozens of people with his 23 weapons, but the toll might have been lower.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut have introduced a bill to impose such a ban. Several Republicans have said the question deserves a serious look.
More proof that it’s a good idea: the National Rifle Association quickly tried to neuter the Democrats’ bill. The NRA said bump stocks should be scrutinized — not by Congress, legislating in the aftermath of tragedy, but by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
That won the NRA undeserved praise for statesmanship. In fact, it was a gambit to make it less likely that tough restrictions will be put in place.
In 2010, ATF ruled that bump stocks are legal because they don’t physically change semiautomatic weapons to turn them into machine guns. In 2013, ATF said it doesn’t think it has the legal authority to do anything about the devices.
That’s why the problem still requires legislation, Feinstein argued last week.
If anything, the Feinstein bill is vulnerable to the criticism that it’s unambitious. Outlawing bump stocks won’t stop mass shootings or individual homicides — far from it. And what about all the other causes of death by firearm, including accidents and suicides?
But the impulse to tackle too many problems at once is one of the reasons Congress hasn’t succeeded in passing any major restriction on firearms in more than a decade.
Even after Sandy Hook, when a gunman killed 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, nothing changed. Now, with a Republican majority and a president who has promised to “come through” for the NRA, broad gun control is an impossible goal.
Feinstein’s narrow proposal, responding to a single horrifying incident, is a kind of pilot project: an attempt to see if Congress can pass anything over objections from the NRA. And if legislation gets through, there’s a long list of other narrow measures waiting their turn.
One is background checks. Anyone who buys a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer must undergo a background check. In much of the country, however, if you buy your weapons on the internet or from an amateur dealer, no check is required. That’s a boon to criminals and gun traffickers.
Another is the “domestic violence loophole.” Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of domestic violence against a spouse or child from owning a gun. But the ban doesn’t apply to anyone who abuses a parent, a sibling or a short-term partner. It doesn’t apply to convicted stalkers, either.
A third: gun trafficking. Remarkably, there’s no clear federal statute that makes gun trafficking a federal crime. Much of the time, transferring a gun to someone who shouldn’t have it is treated as a paperwork violation. That makes it harder for ATF and other law enforcement agencies to prosecute trafficking rings.
Finally, a mundane problem that should be easy to fix: ATF is underfunded and understaffed. The agency hasn’t grown in a decade, even though the number of guns in private hands has exploded. One of the reasons the current background check system doesn’t work as well as it should is that ATF doesn’t have the resources to answer every query within 72 hours — after which the buyer automatically gets his gun. (That’s how Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, was able to buy a pistol despite having a criminal record.) And the problem’s about to get worse: President Trump’s budget would cut 14 percent from gun enforcement over the next decade. That’s nuts.
A single law won’t end mass shootings, any more than laws against homicide can prevent all murders. But gun laws can still be improved, and they can be better enforced. Feinstein’s bill is one place to start.