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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Five years since Sandy Hook, Congress slumbers on gun safety

In this Dec. 14, 2012, file photo, officials stand outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Julio Cortez / AP)
In this Dec. 14, 2012, file photo, officials stand outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Julio Cortez / AP)

Five years ago today, 20 children and six adults were fatally shot in class at a Connecticut school, and a lot of people thought it had finally, tragically arrived: The watershed. The intolerable affront. The tragedy that broke the back of our plodding, desensitized, do-nothing political approach to gun violence.

The wake-up call.

Turns out it was just another go-back-to-sleep call in Congress.

The latest strike to the snooze button comes from the House of Representatives, which passed legislation last week expanding the carrying of concealed weapons across borders – while continuing to sleep on any number of actual gun safety provisions. It would allow anyone who is permitted in one state to carry a hidden, loaded gun the right to do so in other states with different laws.

Thus, a permitted Idahoan would be able to carry his gun – and the entire framework of Idaho gun law – with him when he comes over to Spokane for a visit. (Idaho doesn’t actually require a permit, but it seems that this new law would require a gun owner to do so in order to flout the laws in other states.)

Our laws currently do not honor an Idaho permit, but, under this proposal, our laws would no longer really be laws at all, at least as it pertains to our Idaho friend. And when a Washington resident with a concealed-carry permit travels to, say, Oregon, which does not honor permits from other states, the same would be true: the visiting Washingtonian would operate under an invisible dome of exemption, in which the Oregon law no longer applies.

This promises to further confuse our national patchwork on concealed carry laws, which are already all over the place. And seems likely to create a “race to the bottom” – where the lowest common denominator for gun safety can be exploited as the de facto national standard.

What direction does that road lead? No regulation for concealed carry of any kind.

But the problem with this legislation is not necessarily what it might do.

It’s the diseased system of priorities and values it represents.

Congress sleeps through mass shooting after mass shooting, refusing to enact the most sensible and broadly supported safety legislation, waking only briefly to plant big wet kisses on its main squeeze, the NRA.

The “concealed carry reciprocity” legislation comes at a time when a piece of actual gun safety legislation that anyone who’s not criminally insane should be able to support – banning “bump stocks” that allow the conversion of semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic ones – languishes in the Congress.

In a statement last week, Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the concealed carry bill “protects the Second Amendment rights of citizens when they cross state lines. By setting a uniform standard for people with a license or permit to carry a handgun to do the same in other states with similar laws, we are providing certainty to law-abiding gun owners across America.”

At a time when Congress cannot even muster the energy to reauthorize children’s health insurance, this protection for gun owners is a high priority indeed. Supporters say it simply protects the rights of law-abiding gun owners who have had to qualify for permits. It’s certainly true that when it comes to the epidemic of mass shootings, concealed weapons carried by legally permitted gun owners are not our biggest problem.

But it’s hard to see how undermining state laws on their behalf rose to the top of the to-do list.

The House bill includes a do-nothing provision on bump stocks – a stipulation to gather information about them. You might think no more information would be needed. Bump stocks, you may recall, are what the Las Vegas shooter used to convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic weapons 75 days ago.

Banning these things was considered an obvious legislative action, in those naive days after the Vegas shooting. One that even the craven servants of the gun lobby might be forced to support, if only out of the need to seem decent.

The need to seem decent is not as powerful as it might have once been.

Meanwhile, bump-stock sales are on the rise.

The years since Sandy Hook have been the proving ground, time and again, for a Congress whose dereliction of duty approaches the spectacular. After Orlando, after Vegas, after Sutherland Springs – to say nothing of Freeman High – our cycle of gun violence has remained firmly attached to our cycle of craven, do-nothing gun politics.

Widely popular safety measures are ignored. Members of Congress cut-and-paste their condolence messages onto Twitter. Gun-lobby zealotry wins the day.

And Congress goes back to sleep.

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