I have been shaking my head over the Orlando Pulse-inspired debate in the Senate over gun control. I have a ton of problems with what is happening, and I’m not sure that I like anyone involved in the debate.
Problem 1: The “lists”
I have this odd view that, for the most part, the rights in the U.S. Constitution shouldn’t be limited to citizens. I am ashamed to live in a country that has held people in Guantanamo Bay for over fourteen years without charges, a declaration of war, or, at this point, even more than a token presence in Afghanistan. Very slightly less problematic are the various terrorist watch lists and no-fly lists used by the government to monitor people with ties to terrorism.
In the abstract, I have no problem with lists like this, but they should be lists that trigger authorities to detain people for arrest or questioning. Once they are arrested or questioned, they should be removed from the list. This shouldn’t be a permanent state for anyone. If there isn’t enough evidence to charge people with a crime, they shouldn’t semi-permanently lose rights. As such, I have serious problems with the various proposals to use watch lists to keep people from purchasing firearms.
Problem 2: Research
In 1996, Congress imposed a ban on government research into gun violence. The CDC, as part of its overall data collection into causes of death in the US, still compiles raw numbers, but it isn’t allowed to dig deeper. The effect of this is that there is an absence of solid, unbiased research into gun violence. There may be some simple measures the government can take to reduce gun violence–for example, asking for a gun buyer’s relationship status as part of the background check–but because we don’t have good figures on how many gun assaults happen because of recent breakups, we don’t have any idea whether taking such action would have any effect at all. I don’t believe in passing legislation based on gut feelings; I want future researchers and legislators to be able to measure the effects of laws on the problems they were intended to address.
Problem 3: Partisanship
I am cynical enough to believe that the Republicans are voting against gun control measures because their core voters are against it and that Democrats are voting for gun control because their core voters support it. Both sides want their votes on this issue to be available for use in campaign ads over the next few months. Even the bill put forth by moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins is a bill designed to be palatable to her Republican voters while showing Maine moderates that she isn’t a hardliner.
The Various Amendments
There were initially four amendments put forth on gun control:
► An amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would allow the attorney general to deny a gun sale to anyone if she has a “reasonable belief” — a lesser standard than “probable cause” — that the buyer was likely to engage in terrorism. The proposal is popularly known as the “no-fly, no-buy” amendment, but wouldn’t just apply to people on the “no fly” terrorist watch list.
► An Republican alternative by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, which would require that law enforcement be alerted when anyone on the terror watch list attempts to buy a weapon from a licensed dealer. If the buyer has been investigated for terrorism within the past five years, the attorney general could block a sale for up to three days while a court reviews the sale.
► An amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, would make it more difficult to add mentally ill people to the background check database, giving people suspected of serious mental illness a process to challenge that determination.
► An amendment by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would close the “gun show loophole” by requiring every gun purchaser to undergo a background check, and to expand the background check database.
The Feinstein Amendment was defeated 47-53. I would have voted against, as this would have denied rights to people without due process with no recourse.
The Cornyn Amendment was defeated 53-47 in a test vote (there was no point in an actual vote, as it was an amendment to the Feinstein Amendment, so when that failed, there was no point in continuing). I haven’t looked at the text of this bill, but I like the concept, as it forces a judicial review, adding due process to the system. The failure of this amendment clearly demonstrates the partisanship of the issue, as almost every Democrat voted against it. This amendment was better than nothing, but the Democrats would rather have nothing and the street cred than actually doing something.
Currently 99% of the people on the mental defective list are there because the VA reported them. The intent of the Grassley Amendment was to give veterans a way off the list, by providing a means for veterans to appeal their status once released from care. This wouldn’t be an automatic, as some Democrats have suggested, but it would end the current state where once someone gets on the list it is nearly impossible to get removed. Also, the bill would have funded research into the causes of mass shootings. This was defeated 53-47 along similar lines to the Cornyn Amendment.
Sen. Christopher Murphy led the filibuster that caused these votes, but his amendment was soundly defeated 44-56. I liked the Murphy Amendment, as it improved data sharing into the background check system and expanded background checks to almost all transfers of firearms–which I support not only because it potentially improves public safety but it also puts private sellers on a level playing field with gun dealers.
In short, I would have voted for all but the Feinstein Amendment. Cornyn, Grassley, and Murphy would have small steps toward improving public safety, and none of them would have placed significant additional restrictions on gun rights. Murphy would have slightly restricted private sellers, but Grassley would have allowed gun rights to be restored to veterans who showed that they had successfully completed psychiatric treatment programs. I’m not sure who is worse here: the NRA-supported Republicans who blocked Murphy, or the spiteful Democrats who blocked Cornyn and Grassley. All I know is that the combination of the two means that our country isn’t any safer today than it was yesterday.
If you haven’t seen the film A Fistful of Dollars, I highly recommend it, or, alternatively, Yojimbo, the Akira Kurosawa film upon which it was based, or Miller’s Crossing, or Last Man Standing, or you can read the original Dashiell Hammett novel, The Glass Key. The key plot point is that the main character plays one side against the other, often getting caught in the crossfire. I fear that, in order to get anything done on gun control, we need more people willing to put themselves into the crossfire between the two parties.