In recent years, whenever there has been a mass shooting and the resulting national call for improved gun control laws, conservative politicians and pundits have responded with two primary policy proposals: (1) We need to improve our responses to mental health problems; and (2) We have enough gun-related laws already, we simply need to enforce them more effectively. On the fifth day of 2016 the president of the United States, a Democrat, proposed a series of executive actions that in many ways followed the second portion of that advice. He delineated a series of changes in policy that would strengthen the system of background checks prior to gun purchases and improve the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to enforce the existing rules. Yet, somehow, conservative leaders have now condemned him for his new efforts.
Why? We should all know why. The fact is that the argument about enforcing existing laws is a diversion tactic. The pro-gun lobby doesn’t really want it to happen. They just trot it out to imply that no new laws are necessary. They also know that the existing gun laws were written in ways that preclude real enforcement. The gun show loophole and the individual seller loophole were created for a purpose, as were the NRA-inspired legal restrictions prohibiting maintaining useful data about gun sales, gun homicides, and health impacts. Despite their repeated suggestions, conservatives never expected or desired improved levels of gun enforcement, just as they have actively fought any new gun controls. As for that other argument about mental health, conservative politicians have consistently voted against any expansion of health coverage and continue to push for repeal of the most significant expansion of mental health benefits passed in decades, the provisions contained in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). I can predict that Republicans in Congress will also vote against any effort to increase ATF funding to cover the cost of the additional enforcement agents that the president wants to hire.
On January 5th President Obama signed 23 separate executive orders regarding gun control. Among other things, these orders require federal agencies to share data with the federal background check system and improve incentives for states to share such data as well, require the Attorney General to improve scrutiny of individuals mentioned in background checks, improve data collection on lost and stolen weapons and those involved in criminal investigations, strengthen efforts to collect data about gun safety and new gun safety technology, disseminate information about responding to active shooter events, and improve health coverage for mental health problems. Many of these actions, particularly the efforts to collect data on shootings and gun safety, have previously been opposed by the gun lobby, even to the point of passing laws prohibiting the maintenance of gun-related databases.
Gun proponents have already been complaining that none of the president’s orders will have any effect. This is not true. It is true that his efforts will not be as effective as many of us would like, but (as President Obama pointed out in his press conference) the actions that would be more effective are those that require congressional action, and the gun lobby has an effective veto control over that process. The president is doing everything he can within the limits imposed by our constitutional checks and balances. And while many claim his efforts will be meaningless, others, including several speakers in the CNN town hall on January 7th, falsely implied that the new proposals would keep legal buyers from getting the guns they want. The president repeatedly denied that his efforts would affect them, but to no avail.
So what could be done that would be effective, short of imposing Australian-style gun controls and nation-wide gun confiscation? Admittedly, that is the proven effective method for virtually eliminating mass shootings. That is very unlikely to happen in the United States. But there are actions that would reduce mass shootings, somewhat, and that would greatly decrease the levels of everyday gun violence in our urban centers—the locations where most of our gun homicides and accidental deaths occur.
As pro-gun activists like to point out, urban violence occurs despite the existence of legal controls on gun possession and use in most of our large cities. The reason for this is that cities cannot control their borders. The vast majority of guns involved in gang shootings and other homicides and crimes using guns in our cities are purchased outside the city limits, often from outside state lines, and generally the result of straw purchases in which legal buyers purchase guns and resell them on the black market, bypassing the system of background checks. There are strong federal laws against straw purchases. However, the gun lobby has passed laws that have placed limits on the ability of the ATF or other law enforcement agencies to collect and maintain data about repeat gun purchases and large-volume gun purchases and resales of guns by individuals, exactly the kind of data that would assist prosecutions to reduce straw purchases. Likewise, there are no nation-wide requirements that dealers must report multiple-gun purchases or that gun owners must report the transfer of ownership of any guns. Even with enhanced background checks it is virtually impossible to keep anyone from obtaining weapons, whether they are violent felons or known gangsters or domestic abusers or mentally unstable individuals.
What we need—and what the people of cities like Chicago and Detroit and New Orleans desperately need—are not only complete background checks on gun purchases, but a system that requires reporting of every event in which a gun changes ownership, either through a sale or gift exchange or theft. We all know that the gun lobby would argue vehemently against any such data system, and they have already passed laws that prohibit maintaining similar data. Here we must note that opponents of gun control have repeatedly argued that we should keep guns out of the hands of criminals (the “bad guys with a gun”) without infringing on the rights of legal gun owners. Data that tracks gun transfers would do exactly this. Again, the gun lobby gives lip service to enforcement but works continually to make it impossible.
Why does the gun lobby oppose enforcement and reasonable gun controls despite the fact that most people, even NRA members, support it? It’s because the leadership of the gun lobby, including the NRA, represents gun manufacturers, and gun manufacturers oppose anything that would decrease gun sales. They don’t care where the guns go, as long as sales remain high. They don’t care if rapid-fire weapons and large-capacity magazines and armor-piercing shells end up in the hands of criminals or terrorists or mentally unstable people; they just want to sell more of them.
Personally, I support complete gun registration. This would be the most effective means of keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them and assisting the police in solving gun crimes. It would not be any more of an imposition on the rights of legal gun owners than our current system of auto registration, and would even help gun owners recover their property when their expensive weapons are stolen. Of course, registration would have the effect of reducing annual gun sales, so the gun lobby is absolutely opposed to it, and they have raised paranoia about government tyranny to an art form in order to justify their opposition.
The fact is that the only way to reduce gun violence is to know where guns are going. Effective solutions like transfer tracking or registration would be politically difficult in the United States, but not because we don’t want them. The citizens of our country are ready for such measures, according to recent polls, but the political system is not. I am not sure what our representatives in congress still need to experience before they begin bending to public preferences—they should have responded after Columbine or Sandy Hook, at the very least—but I still believe that eventually we will get to that point.