Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Divide on gun laws sets stage for 2020 -- column of May 2, 2019


Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris threw down the gauntlet on gun control.

“Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws, and if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action,” the senator from California declared April 22 at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire.

Taking a strong stand on gun control used to be politically risky. Today, not so much.

Not after the Virginia Tech massacre of 32 students and professors in 2007, the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year – and countless other shootings, including at a synagogue in California Saturday and a university in North Carolina Tuesday.

Democratic leaders agree on the need for universal background checks for gun purchases, reinstatement of the ban on sales of military-style assault weapons and red flag laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of those likely to hurt themselves or others.

In February, House Democrats passed two gun safety bills with a smattering of Republican support. If lightning should strike and the bills make it through the Republican-controlled Senate, though, President Donald Trump will veto them.

And that divide sets the stage for the 2020 campaign.

Trump told the National Rifle Association convention April 26 the constitutional right to bear arms is “under assault – but not when we’re here. Not even close.”

He urged NRA members to “get out there and vote” next year. “It seems like it’s a long ways away. It’s not,” he said. 

The NRA poured tens of millions of dollars into electing Trump, but its clout appears to be fading amidst internal strife and investigations into its tax exempt status.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, hardly a “gun grabber,” reportedly is drafting a red flag bill to help police confiscate guns temporarily from people who are likely to hurt themselves or others.

“I think most Americans believe that multiple murderers shouldn’t have gun rights. Most Americans support background checks,” he told The State newspaper in South Carolina. “The Second Amendment’s important to me, but it’s not a suicide pact.”

Polls show the major issues for 2020 are likely to be health care, the economy and immigration. Gun laws don’t make the cut, although few polls even ask the question.

But Quinnipiac University does ask, and its polls since 2014 consistently have found over 90 percent support for background checks for all gun buyers. Most recently, in January, 95 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans said they favored background checks.

Gun rights groups say background checks are ineffective and infringe on constitutional rights. When several states passed more stringent firearm laws after the shootings in Parkland, Florida, dozens of rural counties declared themselves Second Amendment “sanctuaries,” refusing to enforce the new laws.

How did we get here? For a clear-eyed account, I suggest reading “After Virginia Tech” by award-winning journalist Thomas P. Kapsidelis, a friend and former Richmond Times-Dispatch colleague.

Kapsidelis tells victims’ stories and what happened next to survivors, families, first responders and others -- and where the political system failed them.

“One Tech parent told me that all sides could have come together to make progress. That hasn’t happened,” he writes.

It’s a sobering, unsentimental assessment, but Kapsidelis cautions against losing hope.

He quotes an editorial by Gerald Fischman, who was murdered, along with four colleagues, last summer when a gunman with a grudge burst into the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando where 58 were killed in July 2016, Fischman wrote: 

“Of all the words this week, hopelessness may be the most dangerous. We must believe there is a solution, a way to prevent another mass shooting.”

No one wants more mass shootings. The 2020 campaigns and election offer us the chance to show we care enough to try to stop them.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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