Column: The U.S. Senate gun safety deal may seem like small potatoes — but it’s not

"Ghost guns" are displayed at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in 2019.
(Haven Daley / Associated Press)

Politicizing is paying off. And hopefully we’re headed for the slippery slope that gun lobbies long have dreaded.

The response is automatic from gun groups and their elected toadies every time there’s another horrific mass shooting and frustrated firearms safety advocates go beyond the conventional “thoughts and prayers” by asking why we allow civilians to acquire weapons of war. Why is America the undisputed gun violence leader of the industrialized world?

Sane people who raise these sensible questions are immediately denounced for “politicizing” the tragedy.


You bet, and good for the outraged gun control advocates. Politicizing a problem is how we’re set up to change things in America, not by pulling weapons off the gun racks and firing away. Or invading the U.S. Capitol.

Thanks to time-honored democratic politicizing, public pressure was heaped on enough Republican U.S. senators to prod them into agreeing last week on a framework for very modest gun legislation.

Of course, it helped that the 10 Republican signers-on aren’t running for reelection this year. In fact, four are retiring. So, they won’t be facing gun-worshiping voters in November and could listen to the rest of us.

Gun lobbies — led by the National Rifle Assn. — have blocked even the tamest gun controls in recent years, warning that they’d start us down “the slippery slope” to more aggressive measures.

Let’s hope they’re right and this compromise gets timid Republicans comfortable with passing laws that protect schoolchildren from tormented killers armed with assault weapons — and abused women from sick gun-wielding partners.

We can only hope that the slippery slope leads to restoring the assault weapons ban and outlawing high-capacity magazines. At the minimum, Congress should require universal, substantive background checks for all gun sales — whether the weapon is sold by a licensed dealer or a private peddler. Like we do in California.


But Congress isn’t going to do that anytime soon. So, let’s be grateful for what safety measures we can get.

Senators reach a framework for enacting modest firearm restrictions, such as closing loopholes and increasing background checks for gun purchases.

June 12, 2022

“It is not all we had hoped for. It’s not going to solve the gun violence crisis,” says Ari Freilich, state policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But he adds: “The house is on fire, and this is one bucket of water. We need a lot more buckets of water, but every bucket of water helps.”

“I’m excited. I didn’t expect anything,” says assistant professor Veronica Pear at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “It’s a lot less than I’d like, but maybe next time it won’t be as hard” to compromise on gun control legislation.

Actually, the Senate framework, assuming it really gets written into legislation and passed, has some significant elements.

The bipartisan deal, crafted by Sens. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would require enhanced background checks for 18- to-21-year-old gun buyers. They should be mandated for firearms purchasers of all ages, but this is a start.


Background checkers could dig into juvenile records that are now sealed.

The suspect in the recent racist shooting of 10 Black people at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store and the mass killer of 19 students plus two teachers at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school were both 18.

The compromise also would close the so-called “boyfriend” loophole. Now, a guy who beats up a spouse or a live-in partner can be found guilty of domestic violence and barred from possessing a gun.

But if he’s not living with the abused woman, he’s legally entitled to a weapon. Under the Senate agreement, he’d be stripped of his guns and couldn’t legally buy another.

There’d be billions of dollars — the precise amount hasn’t been determined — for mental health services and “red flag” programs.

The red-flag money is especially significant because these programs help keep guns away from potential killers or suicidal people in states where they exist, such as California. In California, they allow families, teachers and co-workers to report suspicious gun owners. Then a judge can order their weapons temporarily confiscated.

Nineteen states have some version of a red-flag law, and they’d all receive federal money to bolster their efforts under the Senate package. Importantly, there would be financial incentives for other states to create their own programs.


A recent study by UC Davis violence prevention researchers found that 58 people who threatened mass shootings were disarmed during the first three years of California’s six-year-old red-flag program. At least 12 school shootings were averted.

“There’s not much doubt that red-flag laws prevent gun violence, including probably mass shootings,” says Garen Wintemute, who heads the UC Davis research program.

As for the Senate framework, Wintemute says: “It’s a level of progress we have not seen for a very long time. It’s all for the good. At the same time, everybody recognizes it’s nowhere near adequate and people hope this might be a first step.”

A step toward the slippery slope.

Meanwhile, the California Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom are setting aside money and pushing bills to tighten the state’s gun laws.

The $300-billion budget passed by the Legislature on Monday includes $40 million to help enforce the red-flag law, particularly in domestic violence cases.

A bill speeding toward passage would outlaw “ghost guns” that have no serial numbers and are untraceable. They’re assembled from kits and don’t require background checks. Under the bill, they’d be treated like any other firearm.


Another bill would allow victims of firearm violence to sue manufacturers and dealers that skirt California gun standards.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan U.S. Senate offering may seem like small potatoes — but really is a big deal.