Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), at a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 21, announced a measure that would block people on the no-fly list from buying firearms. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
By Editorial Board,
ON MONDAY, the Senate voted down several gun control measures. Is that news?
Well, in some ways, more than you might think. Those votes may not be the end of the story.
One option defeated Monday was backed by the National Rifle Association and most Republicans and would have made it difficult for the government to deny firearms sales to those on terrorism watch lists. Another, backed by most Democrats, would have made such denials the norm. After neither got the needed 60 votes, Democrats could bash Republicans for ostensibly letting terrorists buy guns, and Republicans could bash Democrats for wanting to infringe on a constitutional right without due process (because such watch lists are assembled by the goverment, in secret).
So far, so predictable. But there is a chance that, for once, Congress will not just leave it at that. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are hashing out a compromise that would limit the number of people who cannot purchase firearms to those on the most serious watch lists. Additionally, the FBI would be given notice when anyone who has been on a terrorism watch list within the past five years attempts to buy a gun, even if they are no longer listed. That would be an improvement over the status quo. And the bill would allow those who have been denied a firearm the right to appeal to a federal judge, relieving due-process concerns. Though details, for example on the judicial review process, remain contentious, Ms. Collins and her colleagues deserve credit for attempting to forge a viable compromise that, if passed, might do a bit of incremental good.
Compared with the challenge of gun violence in the United States, it would be only a minuscule step. Some 33,000 people die from gunshot wounds every year in the United States, many in heartbreakingly avoidable ways. That is a public-health crisis, but Congress has constrained the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching the phenomenon in an orderly way. The result is a lack of good data on gun violence that could help lawmakers design policies to save lives without violating rights.
Even with these restrictions, hard research and common sense suggest several reforms that would make a big difference. Background checks — real, comprehensive and universal background checks, not the sham, loophole-ridden system we have now — could help. Even if someone would be ineligible to buy a gun under Ms. Collins’s plan, that person could still go to a gun show or buy firearms online without a real background check system.
Nationwide gun permitting, which might require gun buyers to register, give fingerprints, have their picture taken and undergo an interview before being allowed to purchase a gun, would discourage dangerous people from obtaining firearms. Banning gun sales to domestic abusers and those guilty of violent misdemeanors should be on the table. And “smart gun” technology, which would keep guns from being fired by anyone but their legitimate owners, would save lives, too.
Congress is still a ways from such sensible moves. But with gun reform on the presidential campaign agenda for the first time in many years, and reform opponents in Congress on the defensive, a bit of optimism is not out of order.