This week, the Senate may debate and pass new legislation mandating background checks for all gun purchasers and adding other provisions to existing gun control laws. If the Senate is successful in crafting a bill, then the House may adopt that legislation, or reconcile its own version with the Senate language.
It seems to me that this is a moment when the nation could come together — liberals and conservatives alike — and embrace a constructive change to gun laws that would satisfy the interests of all sides, add effective provisions to improve (not guarantee) our general safety, and, not least, demonstrate our ability as fellow Americans to be something bigger than a mere collection of autonomous individuals.
That last item is more important today than it has been for some time. At the congressional level, we have been so relatively paralyzed for the past four years that many ordinary citizens — both Republicans and Democrats — are feeling degrees of despair, alienation and cynicism about the capability of the federal government to address and solve problems effectively and with proper regard for the interests and welfare of the largest possible chunk of the population.
Ominously, it is democracy itself — as currently configured in the United States — that too often has seemed hijacked or sabotaged by narrow interests or lobbyists or the unwillingness of people and politicians to compromise.
The outcome of the gun-laws debate, then, will either pull us together or increase the distaste for congressional unresponsiveness and cravenness that is already so prevalent among citizens.
I say this because, since the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults, an extensive gun control debate has established a number of widely supported measures that would contribute to reducing (not eliminating) both the frequency and severity of gun violence.
Perhaps the best reform that is being proposed — and the one that has received large majorities of support in poll after poll — is the recommendation to require a background check on every buyer of a gun. Even large numbers — maybe a majority — of current gun owners support this proposal.
Presently, depending upon which state we are discussing, many sales at gun shows and other sales conducted privately are permitted to occur without a background check on the buyer. That means that a felon, an addict or a mentally sick person may purchase a gun in those venues without any chance of being screened out.
Background checks will not catch every “bad guy” — and some criminals will just buy guns on the street — but federal agents already testify to the effectiveness of checks in keeping a significant number of firearms away from persons who fail the screening.
And importantly, universal background checks do not in any way infringe on Second Amendment gun ownership rights. No mentally stable, law-abiding person has been, or will be, kept from owning a gun — or many guns — by background checks.
The next important reform that enjoys wide support is the proposal to ban magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Those clips — some hold 100 bullets — are designed to kill large numbers of humans as quickly as possible. With one, large, 33-round magazine, Jared Loughner, the shooter of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people, fired 31 shots in 30 seconds. Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Conn., fired approximately 155 bullets from large, 30-round clips. One child had 11 bullets in her body.
Again, magazine restrictions won’t eliminate massacres. But possibly they’ll slow down gunmen and reduce the severity of mass shootings. Also not to be overlooked, policemen are too often at increased risk when confronting gunmen who are equipped with oversized clips. And again, no Second Amendment rights whatsoever are compromised by magazine restrictions.
Since the last three terrible shootings in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz., our nation has had a detailed discussion about guns, mental health, video games, violent movies, copycatting and all of the other factors that can play some part in the confused state of a mass killer.
There are many reforms — addressing all of those factors — that can be implemented. But we know enough now to be able to meaningfully improve our gun, background check and magazine laws, and we can do that while being fully respectful of Second Amendment rights.
We are a free society, and we are a democracy. A free society — a society of autonomous individuals — needs sane gun laws, and a democracy requires a government — Congress — that responds when both majority opinion and thoughtful, just policy align. It is time for the Senate and the House to work together to improve our gun laws.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.