THE WEEK after the Orlando terrorist attack, we are told, is no time for a debate on gun control. Expanding the list of people who cannot legally own guns or tightening background checks would not have stopped this particular tragedy. Omar Mateen, an American citizen inspired by some combination of radicalism, hate and despair to kill 49 people at a gay nightclub, was not on a terrorist watch list. Better background checks may not have stopped him. If assault weapons were banned, he might have used other kinds of guns. If the government mandated smart guns, Mateen’s fingerprints would still have allowed him to pull the trigger, because he was the legitimate owner of the weapons he used for his slaughter.
The National Rifle Association and other extremists use a form of this jujitsu every time a mentally ill person or a hater uses the efficient killing machines known as guns to inflict mass death. But in an era of lone-wolf radicalization, the aftermath of a homegrown terrorist attack is exactly the time to talk about sensible limits on gun ownership. After Sandy Hook would have been the right time. After Umpqua would have been the right time. Headline-grabbing mass shootings remind us of how good guns are at killing people. They also remind us — or should — that a rational government would regulate such dangerous products, just as it regulates cars, pharmaceuticals and other more useful things.
Of course the government cannot legislate an end to gun violence. But it can take measures that would reduce gun violence without infringing on constitutional rights.
Congress is debating ways to end gun sales to suspected terrorists, a policy that lawmakers realize must come with due-process protections for those under suspicion. Even if it would not have prevented Orlando, this reform might force the next homegrown terrorist to work harder to find his firearms, raising attention as he does, or to give up. Another proposal would deny guns to people who have misdemeanor hate-crime convictions, which poses fewer due-process issues.
But these ideas are hardly the only, or the most important, gun-control reforms that lawmakers should be considering. Research increasingly shows that universal background checks could help cut gun violence; without them, merely adding to the list of people who cannot legally own guns is not as effective. Requiring safeguards such as fingerprint readers, meanwhile, would stop children and suicidal family members from shooting themselves or others with a weapon stored at home. Banning high-capacity magazines would at least force mass murderers to reload more often. If Congress unleashed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence, the government would have the data to know which set of policies would work best and which ideas would less usefully restrict gun ownership.
Tragedies would still happen, and the NRA would still argue that the rules are useless. But, over time and on average, fewer people would die. That is a legitimate goal.