Federal, state and local lawmakers should take note of the Supreme Court’s decision this week not to hear a challenge to a Chicago suburb’s ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. A recent series of horrific mass shootings, including one with the kind of weapon that Highland Park, Ill., has banned, underline government’s legitimate interest in regulating gun ownership to safeguard public safety. Lawmakers in Washington and state capitals should take note that they have the leeway — not to mention the obligation — to reform this country’s lax gun laws.
The court announced Monday it would not review a lower-court ruling that upheld the 2013 ordinance prohibiting semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. “[W]eapons of choice in mass shootings” was the apt description from the opinion by a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. It noted that the Supreme Court’s landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision upholding a constitutional right to keep arms for self-defense also allowed reasonable regulation by legislatures, including the ability to prohibit “dangerous and unusual weapons.”
Seven states reached similar conclusions about the need to ban these frighteningly lethal weapons, and their recent use in the terrorist-inspired shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., has brought renewed calls for reimposition of a national ban. These weapons are designed for war, and prohibition makes sense. But there should be no illusion that such a move, alone, would provide the solution to gun violence, of which mass shootings and the use of assault weapons comprise just a small part. Similarly, efforts to prevent people on the no-fly list from buying weapons would do little to tackle larger issues of gun accessibility.
A variety of strategies is needed, including stiffening the low standards for legal gun ownership, designing better systems to prevent those who are disqualified from circumventing barriers to gun possession and encouraging the adoption of technology to make guns safer. Instead of holding up possible policies to the impossible test of whether they could have prevented the most recent tragedy or would end all gun crime, proposals should be grounded in the research into what works and what offers the most promise for reducing homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. Laws requiring gun purchasers to obtain a license from law enforcement authorities would meet those tests. Not only has research shown the efficacy of gun permitting in reducing homicides and suicides, but gun owners are generally willing to put up with a little inconvenience if it helps foster public safety.
Before passing on the Highland Park ordinance, the Supreme Court opted out of reviewing San Francisco’s law requiring handguns to be disabled or locked away when they are not being carried. It also declined to consider a challenge to a New Jersey law barring most residents from carrying guns in public. We don’t know whether, as some have speculated, the justices are having second thoughts about the Heller decision; we do know that lawmakers can and should take action to address this country’s unacceptable toll of gun violence.