Gun control: where glimmers of compromise may be appearing

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, a briefing on background checks, what's happening in Washington and state capitols, and initiatives at the retail level.

H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticut Media/AP
Barbara Allen, of Sandy Hook, holds a sign and a candle at a Newtown Action Alliance vigil outside the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn., on Oct. 4 for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The advocacy group formed after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It’s perhaps America’s most intractable life-and-death dilemma: The mounting human – and increasingly public – toll of gun violence.

The Las Vegas Strip massacre became the deadliest such attack since the Thibodeaux Massacre in Louisiana and several other mass killings of black Americans in the late 19th  and early 20th  centuries. It comes just over a year after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., which killed 49 people and previously stood as the largest mass shooting in modern US history. 

The Strip massacre, which targeted a country music festival on Sunday, killed 58 people and wounded more than 500. It shocked even a country that has grown wearily familiar with such killing fields, and for some, cemented a feeling of national helplessness.

Yet it has also prompted a flurry of movement around the question of gun rights versus gun control, from Washington to state capitols.

Even as police search for the killer’s motives, lawmakers are suggesting the country might be able to inch toward more open compromise, where both sides can hold their moral high ground – while, perhaps, saving American lives in the process.

So, what’s going on in Washington?

Congress has, since 1934, curtailed American gun rights on several occasions. But since 1994, there has been little appetite for more stringent gun controls. In fact, though the legislation was postponed after being set for a vote this week, Congress may yet revisit making it easier to buy sound suppressors – often called silencers, though they pop loudly – and push toward a national reciprocity for concealed-carry permits, meaning that states will lose much of their ability to control the practice inside their own borders.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 grade-schoolers and six adults, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California tried to ban assault weapons, including bump stocks. But that effort failed, as did a broader package that would have strengthened background checks. She said this week that her daughter had a “near miss” after canceling plans to attend the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas that the shooter attacked from the 32nd  floor of a hotel.

This week Senator Feinstein, one of the nation’s most outspoken gun control advocates, introduced a bill that would explicitly ban bump stocks.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference about gun legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 4.

Several Republican leaders signaled they would seriously consider voting for it. The more polarized House, too, began drawing up a ban bill.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin said he would have “no problem” banning the device. Mr. Johnson is a Republican who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

In Washington, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who has a B-plus rating from the NRA, was more blunt.

"Look at Las Vegas,” he said. “That's how I account for it. Americans are horrified by it. They're horrified. And they should be." While the senator wants to see the details of the bill before making up his mind, he says it has merit.

The NRA also called Thursday for a federal review of whether bump stocks are legal, and, according to a report by Politico, already bans them at its own firing range.  

To be sure, banning the devices may not have much impact on crime and murder levels in the US, given that the device is basically a novelty in the gun world, argues Larry Pratt, the emeritus director of the Gun Owners of America, in Springfield, Va.

But small compromises can lead to trust, which can lead to more detailed – and perhaps effective – policy shifts, suggests University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson, who studies American gun culture through the use of data.

What about background checks? 

President Trump called the shooter “sick and demented.” But while Stephen Paddock may have been a gruff and enigmatic Vegas high-roller and former IRS employee, police say, he passed his background checks with flying colors as he bought dozens of high-powered weaponry in a 10-month period.

Mr. Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the NRA’s annual conference, crediting the organization with assuring his victory. Trump earlier this year quietly rolled back Obama-era executive actions that empowered the Social Security Administration to make sure mentally unstable older Americans couldn’t get access to weapons.

Trump has also reversed policies that now make it easier for some ex-fugitives to have their gun rights returned, drawing complaints from some police quarters. The US Army Corps of Engineers has also whittled back bans on gun-carry on the 12 million acres of shoreline and trails that it manages in 43 states.

What’s more, the issue of whether to expand background checks to private sales remains largely stuck in neutral in Washington.

But Pew reports that 84 percent of all Americans, including a large majority of Republicans, support expanding background checks. And 89 percent of gun owners and non-gun owners alike want prohibitions on the mentally ill purchasing guns.

What the shift spurred by Las Vegas may augur, says Ms. Carlson, is a realization that the old gun debate is over. In its place, she says, there may be a more fundamental realization among policy-makers that most Americans support both some gun rights initiatives like expanded concealed carry as well as restrictions on gun rights, like expanded background checks.

Common ground, she says, may be found if the shifts that now appear to be unfolding in the wake of Las Vegas sustain themselves. 

What’s going on at the state level?

That kind of common ground is increasingly being found at the state level, says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Gun Fight.”

Since the Sandy Hook killings in 2012, 138 new gun laws tightening restrictions on possession or purchase of firearms have been enacted in 42 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of them are related to prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing weapons, requiring mental health records to be added to background check databases, or expanding background checks themselves to cover more gun purchases.

States have been busy enshrining more gun rights as well, including Georgia’s decision to expand gun-carry to college campuses and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the world’s busiest.

At the same time, however, 19 states have strengthened mandatory background checks for gun purchases since 2013. That includes red states.

In fact, Texas has some of the strongest protections against mentally ill people acquiring guns, mandating that anyone adjudicated by a mental health professional to be ill cannot buy a gun. At the same time, Nevada is one of seven states that has approved mandatory background checks for gun purchases since 2013, in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Nevada also recently enacted a law that prevents those convicted of domestic violence or who have a restraining order against them from being able to carry guns. 

Winkler suggests that such laws are evidence that attitudes are, in fact, changing, in part because the NRA holds less sway at the state level than it does in Washington.

“You’re going to see a real push to regulate the gun modifications that make these guns inordinately deadly,” says Winkler. “Courts have said we can ban dangerous and unusual weapons like machine guns – and these devices take ordinary guns and make them dangerous and unusual.”

Is this just a government issue?

The Gun Shop Project doesn’t think so.

Instead of opposing guns on principle, the Harvard-based initiative is one of several groups collaborating with gun shop owners and employees to ease perhaps the biggest mental health issue: that two-thirds of all US gun deaths that are self-inflicted.

And profit-driven retailers, too, may be assuming a greater level of responsibility in the life-and-death debate over how lethal Americans are allowed to become.

Cabela’s, the sporting goods outfit, scrubbed bump stocks from their online sales this week, and Walmart booted third-party sellers from offering the product on their website.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Washington.

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