My junior Senator, Chris Murphy, staged a very moving demonstration in the United States Senate yesterday, for the purpose of moving forward a legislative agenda to reduce gun violence in this country. I appreciate it, and I think it was politically smart and ethically right, and I am happy that he’s my Senator. I am also bitterly disappointed at how little good it will do.
What I currently understand is that he was able to obtain an agreement that there will be a Senate vote on two items on the agenda: universal background checks (that is, eliminating the exemptions for vendors that don’t currently need to run background checks on purchasers) and what he is describing as closing the terror gap, which means prohibiting a group of people designated as dangerous for specifically terror-related reasons from purchasing firearms. Universal Background Checks will not pass the Senate; the terror-watch list might (in some form). So the one actual legislative change in the short term will reduce gun violence almost not at all, and is very problematic for a variety of reasons. Hurray! It’s like forward movement without actually getting anywhere.
I am not absolutely opposed to a terror-watch list of people prohibited from purchasing firearms, even if some people on the list haven’t actually committed crimes. It is true that such lists are generally racist as institutions, and that’s certainly a Bad Thing. It’s true that our current no-fly list and similar target lists have been handled very badly; there is some reason to believe that folding that list into a no-firearms list would result in the list being handled better, both in putting people’s names on the list and getting them off (when appropriate). It’s also true that law enforcement has to have and ought to have a list of people they are watching, suspects or people with connections to suspects, or even people that really are high-risk. That list will never be perfect; that list will always suffer the biases and prejudices of our society. We can and must work to make it better (and when I say must I am aware that we don’t; it’s a moral imperative rather than a physical necessity) but we will always have a bad, imperfect watch list. The decision of whether the problems with the watch list outweigh the benefits for proscribing a particular thing seem difficult and complicated… except with firearms purchases. Airplane tickets? Jobs of various kinds? Bank accounts? The watch list for those troubles me greatly. Firearms? That seems like an easy call.
And yet, of the thirty thousand people killed with guns in this country every year, how many would that law prevent? Fifty? A hundred?
The legislation to implement universal background checks would do a lot more. It won’t pass, not this time, but it would probably reduce fatalities by, oh, generously, five hundred a year. I don’t really have any reason for that estimate, but it’s a nice big number, a good round number, and it’s about at the outer limit of what I could imagine. Make it even bigger at a rounded 2%, if you like, and you still can’t call it a solution.
What is the solution? How could we bring that thirty thousand down to something that would be more in line with other countries’ rates? Perhaps aim for something like one thousand people shot to death every year—how could we get to that number?
I have no idea.
Look, this isn’t to denigrate what Senator Murphy did, or those of his colleagues in the House and Senate who also made trouble for a good cause. A more effective legislative agenda is a bit closer than it was. For me, that agenda would include making gun-lock technology mandatory for all federal law-enforcement agency purchases (making stolen guns unusable without expensive hacking—yes, the current technology is imperfect and expensive, but creating a market will make them cheaper and better and my goodness that would make a huge difference) as well as removing high-capacity magazines from the market and more resources for local law-enforcement to deal with non-fatal shootings as well as homicides. Also, since most of the gunshot fatalities are suicides, I’d like to vastly increase suicide-prevention and associated treatment, although of course that could well proceed without reference to guns specifically (guns and suicidal depression are an often fatal combination; in my opinion it would be better to have fewer of both). I hope there are other things that smart people who have studied the issue have thought of, too. At any rate, serious discussion of practical measures is closer than it was, and that’s a Good Thing for the long term.
The short term, on the other hand, stays frustrating.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,