On The Gun Issue

January 10th, 2011

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This piece originally appeared in the New York Times.

We don’t yet know the motive of the shooter, but high profile mass killings usually lead to some talk of gun safety measures. It is one of the sad and unfortunate aspects of the gun issue that the issue only seems to arise when tragedies occur. Some of the hardest days of my life involved talking to a mother or father who lost a little boy or little girl and then lecturing them on what was possible in Congress. The activists on the gun rights side are gun enthusiasts; the activists on the gun control side had something very bad happen to someone very close to them.

What I have found is that there is at least the effort to do something legislatively when there is a direct nexus to a crime. Efforts to close the gun show loophole came out of the Columbine shooting because the students obtained their firearms through a flaw in our gun laws that pertain to gun shows. The Virginia Tech shooting led to a change in the law requiring that the records of those adjudicated mentally ill be placed in the criminal background check system used to buy a gun.

The assault weapons ban came from a series of shootings, but most notably a mass killing on the Long Island Railroad that took the life of Carolyn McCarthy’s husband. She then ran for Congress.

Of course, the Brady Law is named for Press Secretary James Brady, the loophole that allowed Hinckley to buy a gun. The loophole was that in 1968 (in response to a series of assassinations), Congress passed a law banning felons and others from buying a gun. But there was no background check system in place to check. The Brady Law created that background check system.

If this shooting has a nexus to a particular loophole – for example, if it was purchased at a gun show without a background check – there will at least be efforts to pass legislation. If the shooter obtained the firearm through a straw purchase (someone else who was legal bought the gun for him), there may also be some attempt at action. If he was simply a legal gun owner gone mad, the issue generally fizzles out.

We are a nation of 300 million people with approximately 250 million firearms in private hands, according to various surveys. About two-fifths of American households have a gun in the home. Considering the amount of arms in America, it’s amazing we are as safe as we are.