The Case For Supporting A Teeny Tiny Deal On Guns

Congress has struggled for decades to pass gun control legislation — and making progress, however incremental, could still save lives.

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David Hogg and Cameron Kasky are two of the nation’s best-known advocates for tougher gun legislation.

Four years ago, both were in Parkland, Florida, when a gunman killed 17 classmates and staff at their high school. Both helped to launch and lead the student-led movement in response to that massacre.

But this past week, the two reacted very differently to news of an emerging bipartisan compromise that includes a series of incremental steps — like federal support for state “red flag” laws and funding for mental health services — assembled and agreed to in the wake of last month’s elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.

Hogg said it was time to “celebrate” the agreement, telling Time that the proposed legislation represented “more than has ever been done in my lifetime on the federal level.”

Kasky, taking to his Twitter feed, condemned the agreement as “pathetic” and a “colossal loss for the movement” ― and described claims to the contrary as “delusional.”

Hogg’s description of the historical context sounds about right — this would arguably be the most signficant gun legislation since 1994, when Congress passed a now-defunct “assault weapons ban.”

But it’s way short of what advocates were talking about just a few weeks ago. Plus, with a subject as politically divisive as guns ― and a negotiating cabal diverse enough to include Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) ― it’s safe to assume lawmakers will discover they have more differences, not fewer, as they work through details.

That’s likely to lead to even more compromises and an even weaker bill, which is saying something. And that’s assuming the agreement even holds at all.

Murphy knows this. His allies in Congress do too. Even so, they are praising the agreement and preparing to vote for it ― “resigning themselves to take a small victory,” as HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard wrote Monday, “hoping it could minimize the GOP’s fear of political blowback and pave the way for future action toward gun control.”

Will their hopes be fulfilled? Is this morsel of reform worth enacting at all? It will be years before anybody can answer those questions with authority. But I can think of a few good reasons to believe this compromise will live up to the hype.

Most of those reasons are related to gun violence and the potential to do something about it. But one of them is related to American democracy ― and the chance that this bill could indirectly help rescue it.

Even A Small Dent In Gun Deaths Would Be A Lot

First, a quick refresher on America’s gun violence problem.

The U.S. is an outlier among economically advanced nations, with far higher numbers of gun-related deaths. And while that may reflect a variety of factors, including a cultural affinity for weapons, the available evidence suggests strongly that the number one cause is the sheer number of firearms in circulation. Simply put, no peer country comes close.

A dramatic reduction in firearms would almost certainly produce a dramatic reduction in firearm-related deaths. But there’s no realistic chance of making that happen in the near future, because (a) the public probably wouldn’t support it (b) Congress wouldn’t vote for it (c) actually collecting all the guns in circulation would be an almost impossible task.

That is why lawmakers like Murphy and groups like Giffords and Brady have focused on modest steps, like banning certain kinds of weapons or accessories, as well as tightening background checks or finding other ways of keeping guns out of the hands of people most likely to use them for violence against human beings, whether others or themselves.

The newly proposed agreement — which HuffPost’s Igor Bobic covered at the time of the announcement — envisions a few very small steps in that direction. They include the ability to check juvenile records now off-limits for background checks and new funding for states that want to enact “red flag” laws that allow police to take guns away from people whose recent behavior (as certified through court proceedings) suggest they are likely to cause harm.

The agreement also calls for investing in school security and mental health, as well as closing the “boyfriend loophole” that excludes unmarried partners from rules that keep guns away from people with histories of domestic violence.

The boyfriend loophole (and, yes, it’s more frequently boyfriends rather than girlfriends using guns for violence) is one of those provisions that until recently got very little public attention. But gun violence experts have talked about it for years, as HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel (writing with Kevin) noted this week. And provisions already on the books in several states reduced intimate partner violence by 14% to 16%, according to a pair of studies.

That might not seem like a lot, which is a running theme for the provisions under discussion. None of them are going to have singular, transformative effects. But in a country where annual firearm deaths are in the tens of thousands, a reduction of even a few percentage points can mean hundreds, even thousands, of lives saved.

There Are Political Downsides — And Upsides Too

The main case against passing such incremental changes is political ― i.e., that it could actually set back the cause of reducing gun violence, by allowing opponents of effective measures to pretend they’ve done something meaningful and, as a result, escape accountability. It’s a reasonable argument, in principle, but it rests on the assumption that voters would punish lawmakers for blocking strong gun measures.

How solid is that assumption? Strong gun reforms are extremely popular and there have certainly been times in the not-that-distant past when opponents of those reforms suffered political consequences.

One reason the assault weapons ban passed in 1994 (and a law creating a new background check system passed the year before) is that Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election ― and one reason he won is that he repeatedly attacked his opponent, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, for blocking earlier proposals.

But history since then has provided many more examples of legislators opposing gun legislation and escaping punishment for it. That includes most of the Republicans who voted against bipartisan legislation after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, even though then-President Barack Obama made that legislation the top priority for the start of his second term. (One exception was Kelly Ayotte, a GOP senator from New Hampshire whom gun law advocates targeted and who lost reelection in 2016.)

Republicans normally opposed to gun legislation obviously feel some political pressure to act right now; they wouldn’t be willing to endorse even these mild steps otherwise. (Even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell may be on board.) But to think that holding out for stronger legislation would actually produce stronger legislation is, at this point, a serious leap of faith.

And there’s at least as much chance that a vote like this could be habit-forming, in the way that Democrats like Murphy have been suggesting. If there are Republicans out there genuinely interested in modest gun legislation but fearful of offending Second Amendment extremists ― and presumably there are a few ― they might feel more confident voting for future proposals, maybe even significant ones, if their support for this doesn’t cause a huge backlash.

The effects could even spill over to issues beyond guns, which brings me to the point I promised about how this might all help rescue democracy.

The current environment feels more and more like an existential crisis for the republic, and a big reason is the lack of more civic-minded leaders in the Republican Party ― something on vivid display over the past weeks, as GOP lawmakers have repeatedly challenged the proceedings and findings of the Jan. 6 committee.

The explanation for why high-minded Republicans are so hard to find these days is something that can, has and will continue to fill books ― in other words, it’s too big a topic for this newsletter. But just like voting for sensible gun reforms might become habit-forming for a small number of Republicans, so could stepping away from the most extreme elements of the party who want to suppress votes and overturn election votes.

There are obviously no guarantees that cementing the deal now under discussion would contribute toward this kind of evolution, just like there are no guarantees the deal will make a dent in gun violence. It may still be a chance worth taking.

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