A few things you can bet on when there’s been a terrible mass shooting in this country.
One is that the heartbreaking stories about victims and chilling ones about the craziness of the shooter will not necessarily be followed by a strong bipartisan drive for significantly better gun laws.
Pop quiz: After an assault-rifle-brandishing madman killed 18 people and injured 13 more in Maine, the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, was asked what to do about mass shootings. He said:
A. “Let’s ban assault weapons, pronto.”
B. “Shooting? What shooting?”
C. “Hey, I thought you said you were going to ask about impeaching Biden.”
D. “The problem is the human heart, not guns.”
Did you guess it was D, people? Perhaps we should avoid complaining until we see if Johnson proposes new legislation requiring the police to stop and search all human hearts.
Gun control – or, as its proponents prefer, gun safety – always becomes a big topic of conversation after a horrific shooting. But nothing else necessarily happens.
One of the very few serious improvements came last year when Congress finally passed a reform bill drafted by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Murphy had been working on that kind of legislation for nearly a decade, ever since one crazed man with an assault rifle killed 26 people, including 20 small children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his congressional district.
Passing the bill was quite a leap forward from the time Murphy first brought up the idea and could find only one Republican colleague even willing to sit down and discuss it. But success didn’t come until after another mass shooting at a Texas school took the lives of 19 children and two teachers.
Murphy’s bill expanded background checks for gun buyers under 21 and made it easier to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers. Great idea, right? Unfortunately, a federal appeals court recently declared that it’s unconstitutional to bar people from owning guns just because they have … domestic violence restraining orders against them.
Yes! That decision involved Zackey Rahimi, who was having a fight with his girlfriend in a Texas parking lot, began beating her head against the car dashboard, and then pulled his gun and fired at a bystander-witness. It was one of many, many shootings Rahimi had been accused of, and he was charged under that domestic violence restraining order law.
No no no no, said the appeals court: Remember the Second Amendment.
Now, the Rahimi case is on its way to – oh dear – the Supreme Court. A group that basically said last year that gun legislation will fly only if our founders had come up with an “analogous” measure.
“I don’t think anybody’s conceded the court will rule against us on Rahimi,” the ever-optimistic Murphy said when I called him. “If they did, it would be just an absolute, stunning blow to democracy.”
About the founders: Historians will tell you that when the Constitution was adopted, America had no significant standing army. Perfectly reasonable, therefore, that George Washington and his colleagues wanted the citizenry to be ready to rise up and fight if the British re-invaded.
I asked the senator what he thought Washington would say to him about our current gun laws if the two of them sat down for lunch. Murphy demurred: “He’d probably have a lot of other things he’d want to talk about.”
Well, yeah. Donald Trump alone would probably take up a three-course meal.
For a whole lot of people, the right to bear arms includes the right to not even bother thinking about whether you happen to be packing heat at any particular point in time. Just recently, Jeff Wilson, a Republican state senator from Washington, was arrested in Hong Kong for bringing a gun onto a plane in his carry-on luggage. Wilson claimed it was “an honest mistake.”
Lawmakers from Maine, naturally, had very strong opinions after one of their state residents, Robert Card, sprayed bullets through a bowling alley and a bar in Lewiston. Rep. Jared Golden, a centrist Democrat, created a sensation back home when he announced he was going to “take responsibility” and change his long-standing opposition to an assault weapon ban.
The state’s two senators haven’t gone that far. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, did support one idea for reform: restricting the use of high-capacity magazines. Can’t argue about that one: We’d have less reason to fear that future mass murderers could shoot more than 10 people at a time.
On the other side, they’re backing legislation that would bar the Department of Veterans Affairs from its current practice of automatically informing the federal firearms background checkers if veterans like Card were found mentally unfit to manage their VA benefits. I’m sure they have good reasons on their side, but the bottom line does seem to be that folks who were judged incompetent to take care of their money would still be OK to walk around with a lethal weapon.
We’ll see what happens next. “I think it’s a race we’re winning,” Murphy told me. “It’s like a slog through molasses, but we get closer to the finish line every day.”
It’s definitely a good time to be pressing the issue. After all, election year’s around the corner. And by the way, did you know that only 12 states prohibit open and concealed carry at the polls?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.