What the hell is wrong with us?
Less than a month after a white supremacist allegedly killed 51 people in Christchurch on March 15, New Zealand’s Parliament voted, 119 to 1, to make the possession of assault weapons illegal. Gun owners have until the end of September to turn in their weapons as part of a buyback program or face five years in prison. More than 10,000 firearms have already been turned in.
By contrast, at least 59 people have been killed in mass shootings this year (and more than 9,000 in other shootings, not counting suicides) and yet we are no closer to banning assault-style weapons. These were the weapons of choice of mass murderers in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Sutherland Springs, Tex.; Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Poway, Calif.; El Paso; and Dayton, Ohio. Seventy percent of voters and 54 percent of Republicans surveyed by Morning Consult-Politico support banning these weapons of war. Yet President Trump claims there is no “political appetite” for such action, meaning there is no appetite in the Republican Party to challenge the National Rifle Association.
Because of Republican pusillanimity, Congress hasn’t passed any restrictions on firearms in a quarter-century: The ban on selling assault weapons was approved in 1994 and expired in 2004. The last major federal firearms legislation actually made the problem worse: In 2005, Congress granted gun-makers immunity from being sued when their products are used to kill.
After every mass murder, Republicans offer lame excuses and tawdry evasions in lieu of badly needed action. They claim that it’s too soon to talk about political solutions right after a shooting — and then it’s too late. They blame video games and mental illness, even though every other Western country has video games and mental illness and none has the same problem with shootings. The rate of violent gun deaths in the United States is nine times higher than in Canada, 73 times higher than in the United Kingdom, 88 times higher than in South Korea, 110 times higher than in Japan. The rate is even higher in the United States than in Iraq or Afghanistan. This isn’t because the United States has a disproportionate share of the world’s video games. It’s because we have a disproportionate share of the guns: 4.27 percent of the world’s population owns more than 40 percent of all the world’s guns in civilian hands.
Under public pressure, Republicans and Trump are now talking about perhaps expanding background checks or passing a “red flag” law that would allow courts to temporarily take away guns from individuals who are judged a danger to themselves or others. Of course, Trump has talked the talk before without backing it up; he has already abandoned his earlier support for universal background checks.But even if the Senate does pass a broader background check or a red-flag law, these would be incremental improvements wholly inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis we face. Federal background checks already exist, but most mass shooters were able to acquire their weapons legally. Red-flag laws already exist in 17 states and the District of Columbia, but they have been primarily effective in reducing suicides rather than homicides.
Much more ambitious gun controls are needed. We should treat guns the way we treat cars, requiring gun owners to pass gun safety courses, get a new license at regular intervals and carry liability insurance that would force insurance companies to investigate their background. We need federally funded research into improving gun safety with “smart guns” and other technologies. We need to end gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits. And we need to outlaw an entire class of weapons — assault rifles — that has no place outside of combat.
Louis Klarevas, a researcher at Columbia University, found that during the 10 years when the assault weapon ban was in effect, “the number of gun massacres … fell by 37 percent, and the number of people dying from mass shootings fell by 43 percent.” The effect would have been even greater if the 1994 law had fewer loopholes and if it had banned the possession, not merely the sale, of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. That’s essentially what Australia did in 1996 after a gunman slaughtered 35 people. Australia has had only one shooting since then that killed more than four people — and that was the slaughter of a single family carried out by a relative.
New Zealand and Australia have had a sensible response to mass shootings. Our non-response is suicidal — and it’s due entirely to Republican lawmakers and a Republican president putting loyalty to the NRA above their loyalty to the American people. Republicans claim to be tough on defense, but when it comes to what is, along with global warming, arguably our top national security threat (more Americans have died from gun violence in the past 50 years than in all of our wars combined), they are a profile in cowardice. In their dealings with the gun lobby, Republicans are Neville Chamberlain, not Winston Churchill.