President Donald Trump, visiting a hospital in Florida where victims of last week's shooting at a high school were being treated, signaled on Monday that he was willing to consider improvements in federal background checks for prospective gun buyers.
Of course, Trump — being who he is — could easily signal something else tomorrow. And the fact of the matter is that the bipartisan legislation under consideration, which has been stalled in Congress for months, would have done nothing to prevent the suspect in the Florida school shooting from acquiring the weapon he allegedly used in the attack. The suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had no criminal record and bought at least seven guns legally.
But even minor progress in Congress on common-sense reforms regarding guns would be welcome, considering the pattern that Capitol Hill has fallen into: In the days and weeks after a mass shooting, there's talk about moving forward with bipartisan proposals to plug this loophole or that. Then, those proposals fall off the radar screen until the next shooting.
For example, remember all the talk about banning so-called "bump stocks," the device that allows a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster? The devices were used by the shooter in the Las Vegas massacre. That issue still languishes in Congress, despite support for the ban on both sides of the aisle.
It could well be that this bitterly divided Congress will be unable to move forward on major legislation regarding firearms in the United States. But that's no excuse for doing nothing. Here are three steps Congress could take now that could make a difference:
• Ban bump stocks. The Justice Department has said it doesn't think it has the authority to do that on its own. Fine. Then Congress should take care of the matter, and soon.
• Plug gaps in the nation's background check system. The recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, highlighted a big lapse in the system: The gunman was able to buy his weapons despite a domestic violence conviction. A bipartisan proposal to fix some of the shortcomings of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System passed the House, but only after it was combined with another measure expanding the right of people with concealed weapons permits to carry those weapons virtually anywhere in the country. The combined bill died in the Senate. Congress should separate the measures and concentrate on the fixes to the background check system.
• Eliminate the Dickey Amendment, the 1996 measure that prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to "advocate or promote gun control." To be fair, the amendment did not actually explicitly ban research into gun violence — but Congress lowered the CDC's budget by the exact amount it spent on that research. The message was clear to CDC officials.
Not surprisingly, the amendment has had a chilling effect over the last two decades on legitimate research into gun violence. As a result, we simply don't have the data that would allow us to assess what strategies might be most effective to reduce that violence.
The amendment is named for Jay Dickey, a congressman from Arkansas who thought at the time that CDC officials like Mark Rosenberg had crossed the line into advocacy. The National Rifle Association backed the amendment.
But the story has an unusual coda: According to a recent piece in The Atlantic, Dickey came to regret his role in the amendment; in fact, in 2012 he and Rosenberg cowrote a piece in The Washington Post arguing for more research into gun violence.
Dickey died last April. The best thing Congress could do to honor his memory, ironically enough, would be to eliminate the amendment that carries his name — and by beginning to fund research that could illuminate the next steps we can take toward sensible, responsible gun control. (mm)