Can A Fair Debate Stop The Gun Madness in 2021
Yes, we’re insane. But we know how to cure ourselves.
Quiz Q1: How many mass shootings (4 or more people killed or injured) have occurred in America in the 10 days from March 13 – March 22, 2021? You are forgiven if you answered 2 (Atlanta, GA and Boulder, CO). The correct answer is 19. The toll: 37 dead, 76 injured. (https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting)
This is madness. It’s insanity. It’s certainly not the domestic tranquility and general welfare promised by our Constitution. Virtually everyone in America agrees that this is wrong. Yet we have failed as a society and a country to systematically address this problem.
Many solutions are discussed, but none are in place nationwide:
- Ban Human Assault Weapons
- Ban high-capacity magazines
- Close background check loopholes
- Require tighter licensing, registration, and insurance
- Improve access to mental health, and ban gun sales to mentally ill people
- Limit the violence in video games.
As a national epidemic, gun violence is a disease that we refuse to cure, even though such cures are readily available.
Quiz Q2: What do the majority of Americans think about strengthening gun laws? We turn to Pew Research for the answer:
Quiz Q3: Are there any solutions to gun violence favored by a majority of Americans? More from Pew Research:
So let’s get this straight. A majority of Americans agree that gun laws should be stricter. And 2/3 or more of Americans support 4 specific solutions, including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
Our Imperfect Union is not advocating for any particular solution. However, we believe that our government should be able to hold a fair debate about the problem and arrive at a set of solutions that the majority of Americans support. So what’s wrong?
Congress is gridlocked on guns
First, let’s recognize that although states have enacted their own rules on guns, they aren’t completely effective. We are blessed with the freedom to travel from state to state, and to buy guns in one state and to (mostly) bring them to another. This is a national problem, and Congress must address it.
Second, we must recognize our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment. The issue isn’t so much the amendment as the widely differing opinions about what it means. For 217 years, this amendment meant that individuals who were part of organized militias could own weapons. The Supreme Court had reaffirmed that as recently as 1939 in United States v. Miller. But in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court held that militia membership wasn’t necessary. Importantly, it also held that the right is not unlimited and thus subject to federal and state laws.
However, gun rights proponents such as the National Rifle Association believe that the 2nd Amendment declares an absolute right to bear arms, and any law that attempts to restrict that right must be defeated.
On the other side, organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety believe that the amendment leaves room for better background checks, removing weapons for domestic abusers, holding the gun industry accountable for damages, and so on.
If the debate is so clearly framed, why can’t Congress decide? Three main reasons:
- Big money buys influence for extreme positions
- Political parties, under the influence, are adopting extreme ideologies
- Congressional rules, especially the Senate’s filibuster, allow party extremists to prevent tough votes
Let’s follow the money first. According the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on gun rights is big business:
Type of spending
For gun rights
For gun control
Campaign contributions, (1990-2020)
Outside spending (2010-2020)
Annual average per member of Congress
Spending for gun rights outweighs spending for gun control 4-to-1. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering that retail gun sales are $11B annually, and that doesn’t include the manufacturers’ business, part of a $17B weapons industry (2018 data). That much money sloshing around Washington can buy a lot of influence.
The debate in Congress boils down to an Essential Question How do we balance individual liberties (right to bear arms) against common good (public safety)? What do Americans think? The chart on the left says that by a small margin, we favor controlling gun ownership over the right to own guns. But the chart on the right says that our view is extremely polarized by political party.
The challenge in Congress is to reconcile that difference. But as we learned in Partisanship vs. Tribalism, there is effectively no representation for moderate points of view. The overwhelming consensus on the 4 common-sense solutions is itself overwhelmed by party ideology. So Congress swings back and forth, as this brief history shows.
- 1994 – Congress passes the Federal Assault Weapons Ban 5 years after a school shooting
- 1996 – Congress restricts Center for Disease Control from using any funds to advocate or promote gun control
- 2004 – Congress allowed the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban to expire
- 2004 – Senate refuses to pass an extension of the assault weapons ban coupled with a bill to protect gun makers from lawsuits.
- 2005 – Congress passes Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act, which restricts lawsuits against gun manufacturers. The NRA called this “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.”
- 2013 – Senate votes 54-46 in favor of expanded background checks for gun show and online sales, following the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. However, the bill died, as 60 votes are needed to close debate under Senate rules.
- 2015 – Amendment to prevent people on the terrorism watch list from buying firearms was blocked by the Senate 54-45.
- 2019 – The House of Representatives passes 2 bills: Bipartisan Background Checks Act (H.R. 8) requires background checks for online and gun show purchases. Passed 240-190. Enhanced Background Checks Act (H.R. 1112) extends the time allowed for a background check to be completed to 10 days before a gun may be sold. Passed 228-198. These bills died in the Senate under The Marvelous Mr. McConnell
- 2021 – The House again passed HR8 and HR1446 (renamed from HR1112) on March 11. The bills are now in the Senate.
Does this look like a fair debate? We don’t think so. Let’s rephrase an earlier sentence: As a national epidemic, gun violence is a disease that Congress refuses to cure, even though Americans have overwhelmingly decided what we want.
How do we get a fair debate in 2021?
Two big democratic reforms would do the trick.
- In the immediate future, we need to fix the Senate’s rules so that debates can proceed and votes can be taken. This includes reducing the use of and reforming the filibuster so that it is not a tool for endless obstruction. See Let’s Fix The Senate for details.
- In the longer term, we need to reduce and/or eliminate the influence of big money in politics. Our voices and votes as citizens are simply no match for hundreds of millions of dollars spent to buy influence. HR1, For The People Act, is also pending in the Senate and would at least require more disclosure on political spending. But we are going to need a constitutional amendment to completely fix the problem.
The theory is that without money buying Congress, the debate should more about the merits and less about the cash. And if votes must be taken, citizens can then hold elected leaders accountable for their votes at election time. At some point, the overwhelming public consensus on solutions should find their way into law, perhaps after we’ve thrown the bums out once or twice.
So what can I do now?
Of course you can choose sides on this issue, and there are plenty of organizations like the NRA and Everytown that would welcome your help.
But if you want to advocate for a fair and open debate today, call your Senator and demand A) that they fix the Senate’s rules and B) vote on H.R. 8 and H.R. 1446. You don’t even have to express an opinion on the bills, pro or con. You are simply demanding that Senators do their job. Is that too much to ask? Let’s see where our Senators really stand, and let’s hold them accountable at their next election.
Your comments are welcome, as long as you’re not just shooting off your mouth.
Pew Research has several articles with recent research on American’s views on gun policy.