By Robert J. Spitzer
The word “possible” in the old political axiom that “politics is the art of the possible” hardly seems to apply to the gun debate. Despite calls for action after last month’s horrible school shooting in Connecticut, political cynics seem to have it right when they opine that not much, if anything, is likely to change. After all, haven’t we seen this movie before after similar shootings?
This time, though, the cynics might be wrong. Here’s why.
Notable changes in national gun policy have occurred infrequently, but when they have, they’ve come in the aftermath of shocking gun-related events that upended conventional politics. The first modern national gun-control law, the National Firearms Act of 1934, was the culmination of an orgy of gang violence that riveted the nation’s attention. (Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down two months before the bill’s passage; notorious gangster John Dillinger was killed a month after the law’s enactment.) The Gun Control Act of 1968 won final passage because of the escalation of urban violence and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The spur to enact the 1994 assault weapons ban was founded in the killing of schoolchildren in California by a drifter using a Chinese-made assault rifle.
Admittedly, all of these actions occurred during times of unified party control. But consider another such moment: the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting. Within weeks, Congress was enmeshed in consideration of a bill requiring background checks for all sales at gun show, a bar on unlicensed Internet gun sales and tougher gun crime penalties, among other provisions. Despite open hostility from the Republican leaders who controlled Congress, they yielded to public pressure — amplified by support from then-President Clinton — and brought bills to the floor of both houses. The measure passed in the Senate, but eventually lost in the House after tumultuous consideration. Republican leaders would have preferred to let the bills die quietly in committee, but yielded in the face of public outcry.
If the current divided Congress again yields to public demand for change, what measures might have some effect not only on generalized gun violence but on the kind of mass shootings that have outraged the nation? Aside from renewal of the assault weapons ban and limits on bullet magazines, other measures have received far less attention but might be more achievable and, arguably, have an even greater impact.
A 50-year study of mass shootings conducted and reported by The New York Times in 2000 found that a majority of the killers had clear histories of mental illness and gave ample warnings of the heinous crimes they were about to commit. A recent study by Mother Jones examined every mass shooting in the last 30 years and found that the killers got their guns legally about 80 percent of the time. These studies point to a gaping problem: Despite the fact that federal law bars gun sales to the mentally incompetent, and despite an effort by Congress in 2007 to improve record-keeping after the Virginia Tech shooting, the current national background check system is woefully inadequate. According to the Government Accountability Office, while the total number of mental health records submitted by states to the national system increased from 126,000 in 2004 to 1.2 million in 2011, most of that increase came from only a few states. Shockingly, 30 states provided no non-criminal records.
Changes in another record-keeping matter could also have a big effect. For years, gun-lobby pressure has quietly sought to strangle proper record-keeping and gun-data analysis, in the following ways:
• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been barred for years from computerizing its gun-tracing information.
• Beginning in 1996, the Centers for Disease Control was barred from funding gun research.
• Since 2003, a succession of amendments has required the destruction of background-check data required for gun purchases within 24 hours (it used to be 90 days), and has restricted data access by researchers and law enforcement.
• In 2010, a provision was quietly slipped into the Affordable Care Act to restrict the ability of doctors to gather data about patients’ gun use.
• In 2012, then-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) authored a measure to bar the National Institutes of Health from spending money to “advocate or promote gun control” — in other words, to research it.
Federal action could readily tighten all-too-easy gun access for the mentally unbalanced, just as it could reverse the tide of willful ignorance about guns that hobbles law enforcement and important research efforts. “Improve gun record-keeping” isn’t much of a political rallying cry, but it is a goal within ready legislative grasp.
Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor and chairman of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of four books on gun policy, including The Politics of Gun Control.