America’s bloody weekend — mass shootings in two cities — either becomes another moment to sigh and shrug, or it becomes the reason Washington takes action to prevent the next massacre. Which will it be?
There is a direct, sensible path forward in Congress to keep guns out of the hands of some potentially dangerous people. In February, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require a background check for all firearms purchases. The Republican-led Senate balked. Time for hearts and minds in that deliberative body to change.
Already, anyone buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer must submit to a screening, which is intended to flag a person forbidden to own firearms because he or she is a felon, fugitive from justice, illegal drug user or “mental defective.” What’s the problem? At the national level, unlicensed private sellers — including those doing business at gun shows or via the internet — can skip the background check (not in Illinois, though, which has stricter rules).
For years Congress was tied up in knots over the question of how to curb gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment guarantee that individuals can own guns. What changed in the House is what’s reshaped the national conversation and energized gun control proponents: the horror of mass shootings.
The Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School unleashed a wave of student-led activism that supported pro-gun control Democratic candidates and helped state legislatures pass gun laws. After taking control in the U.S. House, Democrats coalesced around the universal background check bill. The House passed a second bill to extend the deadline on background checks, a reaction to circumstances that allowed the perpetrator of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to buy a gun.
The hopeful conclusion is that the shock of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, may resonate. After so many years and so many tragedies, national disgust with mass shootings perhaps can change the politics of gun culture. Yet it’s also true the country remains divided over gun ownership rights, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t moved ahead on background check legislation.
On Monday, President Donald Trump sent mixed messages. He tweeted support for “strong background checks,” though he suggested a convoluted path forward that would tie that legislation to immigration reform. Then, in his national address, the reference to background check legislation disappeared. He did note the need for “red flag” laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate firearms from mentally unstable people.
From a Chicago perspective, closing the loophole on background checks could be big. It could help stem the flow of guns into the city and save lives.
Chicago is awash in illegal guns. They come from different sources, including out-of-state transactions that don’t require a background check and straw purchases, which are legal sales of guns that get transferred to the wrong hands. Over the years the Tribune has reported on the flow of weapons from gun shows in Indiana and elsewhere onto the streets of Chicago.
Gun laws can’t prevent every crime. They can’t bring back the dead from El Paso and Dayton. But a universal background check requirement could stop some dangerous or unstable people from acquiring a gun.
And that could save lives.
— CHICAGO TRIBUNE