Thoughts on the Senate bipartisan gun deal

Washington, D.C., is aflutter with the news that a bipartisan group of senators has come to a “deal” on a framework for, among other things, increased gun control.

Many of the Republicans who are on board the deal are defending it by insisting that it “could be worse.” And, indeed, it could. But we must ask, “so what?” The material question here is not how bad the laws could theoretically be but whether the alterations under consideration would, on balance, improve the status quo. The answer is “No.”

Subject to the details, we remain open to “red flag” laws. But we remain steadfastly opposed to such measures being imposed — or micromanaged — from the federal level. A lack of funding has never been a key obstacle to the creation of state-level crisis intervention statutes, and it is not now, either. What, then, beyond preempting their designs, can be the purpose of a federal role? The same question obtains for the provisions providing funding for mental health, school safety, and telehealth. Thanks in part to the excesses of the federal government’s Covid-19 mitigation efforts, the states are currently flush with cash — especially in the area of education, where 93 percent of the $122 billion that Washington, D.C., sent to America’s schools remains unspent. There is no good case here for the Treasury to write yet more checks.

The framework’s other two ideas are defensible in outline, but one of them — a crackdown on straw purchasers and unlicensed gun dealers — is already the law and needs to be enforced, not reiterated, while the other (including more information in the background-check system) will depend entirely on the execution and would be better dealt with in a smaller, standalone bill.

Per its terms, the Senate’s working group hopes to include both “convicted domestic violence abusers and individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders” in the NICS system, as well as to “enhance” the “review process” for “buyers under 21 years of age” by including “juvenile and mental health records” in the report. Here, the details will be key. There ought to be nothing controversial about prohibiting those who have been convicted of domestic violence from purchasing firearms, and we applaud efforts to extend the terms of this prohibition to all such convicts. And yet to extend that principle to those with frivolous, pending, or judicially unexamined restraining orders would raise serious due-process concerns. Likewise, with under-21s. It may, indeed, be beneficial to add more information on 18-21-year-olds into the national database, but to do so would open up a host of important questions. For example: Does the federal government really want to impose a standard that would, in effect, prohibit the full expungement of juvenile records in all 50 states?

Politically, we must caution Republicans against jumping at the Senate’s framework in the hope that it will bring an end to the Democrats’ calls for more draconian restrictions on guns. It will not. On Sunday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut touted the proposal as a “breakthrough agreement on gun violence — the first in 30 years.” This is remarkably dishonest. In 2017, after a working group in the Senate had consented to the framework for the “Fix NICS” gun-control bill that Murphy had personally negotiated with Senator John Cornyn, Murphy described the development as “a bipartisan breakthrough on gun legislation” and suggested that it marked “an important milestone that shows real compromise can be made on the issue of guns.” Hailing the bill as a “big deal,” Murphy went on to insist that the “reforms” it contained “aren’t window dressing” and called the measure “the most important piece of bipartisan guns legislation since Manchin-Toomey.” In March of 2018, President Trump signed the plan into law.

Just four years later, that bill seems no longer to count. Having pocketed the win, Murphy has memory-holed his previous alliance with Senator Cornyn and returned to claiming that the federal government has done nothing for “30 years.” Republicans in Congress ought to remember this, and resolve to agree only to those provisions that they truly believe might help. Not all action represents progress. Not all momentum is virtuous. It is as true now as it was a month ago that one does not measure one’s empathy by the number of new laws to which one consents.

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