The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ll get less than half a loaf on gun control. We should take it.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) at a May 26 rally for gun control outside the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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If Congress and the president enact watered-down legislation that seems likely to have only a minimal effect on gun violence, does that count as progress? Shamefully but realistically: Yes.

The bipartisan group of senators trying to reach a compromise has reportedly ruled out all the common-sense measures that might meaningfully reduce carnage like we saw in Uvalde, Tex. No renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. No raising of the minimum age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21. No universal background checks, including at gun shows and in private sales.

According to reports in The Post and other media outlets, the senators are focused instead on red-flag laws that would let authorities keep guns away from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others — not necessarily a federal red-flag statute but perhaps carrot-and-stick incentives to encourage states to pass such measures. The senators are also said to be talking about putting more armed security officers in schools and increasing federal funding for mental health services.

That’s not quite as futile as trying to stop a rhinoceros with a flyswatter, but it’s close.

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I’m all for red-flag laws, which are already on the books in 19 states and D.C. A CBS News report Monday quoted Montgomery County, Md., Sheriff Darren Popkin as saying that his state’s red-flag law, used nearly 400 times last year, helped avert a specific threat to a Bethesda high school made by a student. “This is not a theoretical approach,” Popkin said.

Florida has issued nearly 9,000 “emergency risk protection” orders since enacting its red-flag law in 2018, after the Parkland school massacre. But New York, with a similar population and much tougher gun laws, issues only about 500 such orders to confiscate guns per year. The accused shooter in last month’s Buffalo massacre reportedly had shown warning signs of a potential spasm of violence. However, red-flag laws require not just that family members, friends, acquaintances and others pick up on those signs but also that they report their concerns — and that a judge be persuaded to sign a confiscation order.

If all states had such laws and enforced them aggressively, some lives would surely be saved. But warning signs often are recognized as such only in retrospect. Is a teenage boy who starts dressing in all black and listening to Marilyn Manson in crisis? Or just going through a goth phase?

Likewise, I’m all for spending money to make mental health services more widely available. But only a small fraction of individuals diagnosed with a mental disorder commit acts of violence, and overtaxed mental health professionals are not clairvoyant. Mental health screening and treatment would likely prevent some potential mass shooters from becoming so detached from reality that they act out apocalyptic fantasies or so depressed they enact mass shootings as a form of suicide. But how many?

As for beefing up school security, no one can oppose doing everything possible to make school buildings safe spaces. But would an armed security officer have stopped the massacre in Uvalde? Nineteen trained police officers in body armor didn’t have the wherewithal to do so. And any society that chooses to turn schools into bunkers and playgrounds into prison yards rather than stopping gun violence at the source needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

That said, if Senate negotiators come up with anything along these lines that 10 Republican senators will vote for — and that’s a big if — Congress should go ahead and approve it.

This isn’t a case of half a loaf being better than none; we’re likely to get a couple of slices, at best. And I believe Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has fought so tirelessly for so many years to get meaningful action on gun violence, is being overly optimistic when he predicts Republicans will somehow realize they can be on the righteous side of this issue and still survive in today’s GOP.

The reality is that they can’t — at least, not on the national level. For the time being, any truly meaningful action on gun violence will probably have to happen in the states. Florida got more serious about preventing mass shootings after Parkland. Texas officials and legislators need to be held accountable after Uvalde.

Since so many firearms used in jurisdictions with tough gun-control laws are obtained in states with lax controls, we need comprehensive national legislation. I’m convinced that will happen someday. I shudder to think how many more victims have to die before that day comes.

For now, the only choice is doing something inadequate vs. doing nothing at all. We might as well try the former. We know the latter doesn’t work.