12:01 PM PST, December 15, 2012
As the nation reels from the horror of Friday's shootings in a Connecticut elementary school, where a gunman so numb to human sensibility that he could casually snuff out the lives of wide-eyed innocents slaughtered 20 children and six adults, politicians are crafting news releases. Among them are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California's Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who are both calling for stricter gun-control laws.
This will be denounced, of course, as opportunism by many conservative gun-rights proponents, who will say that the wake of a tragedy is no time to talk about politics. Yet it's a fact of democratic life that disasters are often the only thing that can bring about profound political change. Moreover, one would have to be as deranged as the Connecticut gunman not to be moved by the events in Newtown to want to take some action that would prevent such tragedies in the future.
When it comes to gun control, though, that brings up two profound questions: Are there really laws that would stem mass shootings — which seem to have reached epidemic proportions in the United States — and is there any chance of getting them approved at the federal level? The answer to the first question is, probably yes. To the second, probably no.
A host of sensible laws have been proposed over the years that would make it harder for dangerous people to obtain guns, or which would ban the kind of guns that are good only for mass killing. For example: The federal government could close the gun-show loophole, which allows unlicensed dealers to sell used guns without conducting background checks on buyers. It could enhance the background-check system to search more thoroughly for evidence of mental illness. It could ban assault weapons, or weapons with large magazines that are only useful if one intends to kill a lot of human beings very quickly (the Connecticut gunman used two such large-magazine weapons, a Glock pistol and a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine rifle). We would favor passage of any or all of these laws, which would do nothing to prevent responsible gun owners from protecting themselves or hunting.
Gun-rights proponents argue that these laws would be ineffective because anyone depraved enough to plan mass murder wouldn't hesitate to break the law to obtain a gun. Maybe, maybe not. But in any case, that's no reason to make it so easy for them. One can't help but be struck by the fact that on the same day as the Newtown massacre, a deranged man in China, where guns are very hard to obtain, slashed 22 children with a knife outside an elementary school. None of them died.
Much as we'd like to see a modicum of sanity in U.S. gun laws, it doesn't seem forthcoming. Liberals from urban states such as Boxer are unlikely to overcome opposition to gun controls from Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Senate. The idea that the Republican-dominated House would do anything to restrict gun ownership is a vain fantasy. And President Obama has thus far proven himself unwilling to expend the kind of political capital necessary to move meaningful gun reform into the forefront of the national debate. Hug your children and protect them as best you can; politicians are unlikely to do so.
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