Friday, February 9, 2018

A Parting of the Ways on Guns

I like all the candidates who are running for Congress in the Democratic primary. On almost every issue their hearts and brains are in the right places. I’ve worked closely with a couple of them in the legislature and respect their abilities.  Some are personal friends on whom I wouldn’t wish the onerous task of raising money, campaigning tirelessly, winning a primary, and taking on and beating Greg Gianforte.

But when it comes to the issue of guns, we reach a parting of the ways.

At a candidate forum in Missoula last night, when they were asked whether they would support expanded background checks for gun sales, all five Democratic candidates said that they would not.  All of them expressed appropriate alarm about gun violence and advocated for better enforcement of gun laws already on the books. But when it came to background checks for the thousands and thousands of guns sold privately or at gun shows, no deal.  As far as I am concerned, that’s an utterly indefensible position.

There’s no mystery, of course, about what’s going on here. I was sitting next to a veteran and venerable Montana political reporter at the forum, and when I began to gnash my teeth and mutter as one candidate after another caved in on the question, she looked at me like I had lost my mind. Never, in her experience, had a Montana Democrat been willing to risk challenging the NRA. There was nothing new to see here folks, so move along.

She’s probably right and I get that, but I am not convinced that what the NRA wants, and what the public thinks is needed, are the same thing. I’m guessing that for most people it is painfully obvious that tougher enforcement of existing background check laws, which apply to sales by licensed dealers, is going to do absolutely nothing to prevent people who we all agree shouldn’t have them from buying guns on-line, or through a classified ad in the newspaper, or at a gun show. In fact, stricter enforcement of existing laws will only lead to greater resort to those loopholes.

Part of the problem here is that we tend to view the issue of effective background checks through the lens of the terrible mass killings that have become a regular part of our national life. Every time some madman or abuser or deranged high school student shoots and kills churchgoers, or fires into a crowd at a concert or club, or murders  a classroom full of kids, we ask where the guns came from, and too often the answer is that they were purchased legally, or taken from the family gun closet, or bought on the street. And from this we shake our heads and sadly conclude, once again, that expanded background checks couldn’t have prevented this most recent mass shooting.

And it’s true: expanded background checks will not eradicate mass shootings. But that’s not the point. Mass shootings, as terrible and visible as they are, are the tip of the iceberg. There are about 30,000 gun deaths in the United States every year, including suicides. We have far and away the highest incidence of gun violence in the world, except for countries being run by drug gangs or torn apart by civil wars. It’s those countries whose company we keep when it comes to killing people with guns. And killing is just part of the story; there’s also armed robbery, drive-by shootings, road rage, intimidation, and the list goes on.

The fact is that the United States is awash in guns and there is a well documented and well understood process by which those guns flow from the hands of legitimate, law abiding owners into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and will use them to commit crimes. Comprehensive background checks obviously can’t prevent gun crimes, but they can staunch that flow of guns into the wrong hands and reduce the astronomical rate of gun violence in this country. 

And that’s something I would hope any Democrat running for Congress could get behind.