On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman used a device known as a bump stock to convert his semiautomatic rifles into de facto machine guns, killing 58 people and wounding 441 more at an outdoor Las Vegas Strip concert venue. The widespread outrage over that massacre fueled calls for a federal ban on bump stocks and related devices, which have no purpose whatsoever other than to circumvent an existing federal ban on most automatic weapons.
That political moment passed quickly, though. A month later, a former U.S. airman killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Hills, Texas, using firearms that his criminal past should have barred him from owning — the Air Force had failed to submit his domestic violence conviction to the federal database used in background checks for gun purchases. Again, there were calls for reform, but no real action beyond the introduction of a modest bill to incentivize better reporting.
Then last month came the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, which left another 17 bodies in its wake. The rage and frustration felt by students who survived the massacre has turned into organizing, resulting in a nationwide school walkout planned for Wednesday as a sign of disgust and solidarity in demanding gun reform.
So finally, might there be some action? Sort of. Citing the need for students to be safe in schools, President Trump — who had been securely in the NRA's holster — initially put his weight behind some limited changes in gun laws. But by Monday he had backed away from most of them, opting instead for a Federal Commission on School Safety, just the kind of commission he disparaged at a political rally Saturday. He also suggested using federal money to help train local teachers and other school employees who volunteer to have a weapon at work, and said he would "support the transition of military veterans and retired law enforcement into new careers in education," all in an effort to "harden" schools "just like our airports, stadiums and government buildings."
So the answer to school shootings — which, as awful as they are, occur rarely — is to make every school in the country a mini-fortress, with armed school personnel ready to open fire should something happen? It doesn't take much of an imagination to see looming disasters, from teachers making lethally wrong decisions to police rushing in and shooting the wrong armed person, and from students getting hold of the firearms to school employees themselves committing acts of violence. Adding firearms to schools seems like an extraordinarily shortsighted plan.
Trump has embraced a couple of considerably better ideas. He said states should adopt laws that make it easier for law enforcement to take firearms from people deemed at risk of violence, as California has already done. And not long after the Las Vegas shooting, he directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to find a way to ban bump stocks and similar devices. They should be outlawed, but unfortunately, the ATF previously determined that federal law does not give it the authority to do so, so a new ban by the same agency would likely face a legal challenge from the NRA. Congress needs to solve this problem itself. But, well, that isn't about to happen, even on so flagrant a circumvention of the law as bump stocks.
That's the real outrage. Again. Although the conscience of the nation is shocked by these repeated scenes of slaughter, Congress is apparently unmoved. The grip of the gun lobby — led by the National Rifle Assn. — evidently matters far more in Washington than the voice of ordinary Americans, who have expressed overwhelming support for universal background checks and for bans on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines that enable more people to be murdered faster. And if Congress fails to act, polls suggest voters would hold Republicans most responsible. So even facing that political landscape, the party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House can't see it's way clear to take solid steps to resolve one of the nation's most pressing public safety issues.
Is it cowardice? Some blind loyalty to an out-of-the-mainstream vision of gun culture — only about one in three U.S. households owns a gun — concocted by the gun lobby? It's hard to say, and in the end the reason doesn't really matter. It's the failure that counts, and voters needs to make sure those who have failed are held to account.