By The Herald Editorial Board
Just a simple roll call of names — and ages — of the victims of recent mass shootings — including 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 adults and seniors in Buffalo, N.Y. — ought to have been enough motivation to push Congress to action; to have legislation on President Biden’s desk now waiting for his signature to add even modest firearms restrictions to federal law.
But members of Congress, knowing its own inertia and its unwillingness to oppose the gun lobby and apologists for high-powered firearms, had no choice but to hold up the horror during hearings for all to acknowledge:
A child who smeared herself with a dead classmate’s blood in hopes of convincing the shooter — should he return to her classroom — that she was already among the dead.
A mother who invited members of Congress to come to Buffalo to help clean and dress her son’s bullet wounds so they could see the damage done to his body and the community.
A pair of green Converse tennis shoes — a heart drawn over the toes of the right shoe — that were the only clear identification for one 10-year-old victim in Uvalde, because her body was so utterly destroyed by the semi-automatic rifle that killed her and 20 others.
A pediatrician describing the pulverized bodies of victims — including two who had been decapitated — and so disfigured in the attack as to allow identification only by the cartoon characters on their bloodied clothing.
Take a moment, please: Imagine being the parents who have to describe what their child was wearing that day so that the child’s mangled body could be identified.
And yet — 30 days after Buffalo and 20 days after Uvalde — even the most modest of proposals appear no closer to becoming law. And the likelihood grows that once again nothing will get done, nothing will change and we will wait for the next outrage to convict our acceptance of inaction.
The House, to its credit, came nearest, passing legislation, 223-to-204 — with a few Republicans signing on — that was close to the list of legislation demanded June 2 by President Biden, who among other proposals sought a significant strengthening of background checks before purchase of firearms, removing the firearms industry’s immunity from lawsuits and resumption of the 1994 assault weapon ban that expired in 2004.
The House legislation included measures to raise the age limit for purchase of semi-automatic rifles to 21; ban high-capacity ammunition magazines; crack down on gun trafficking, adopt safe-storage requirements; offer grants and other incentives to encourages states to pass “red flag” laws to allow court orders to be sought to remove weapons from those found to pose a threat to themselves or others; and codify earlier executive action that prohibits “ghost guns,” those made without serial numbers, and bump-stocks that convert firearms into automatic weapons.
The House legislation, even as it passed, was acknowledged as having no path forward in the Senate. The Senate continues to struggle to find a package of legislation that will find favor with at least 10 Republicans and all 50 Democrats to get past a likely filibuster.
That high bar is likely to severely limit what emerges in a deal, if even that is possible; a potential deadline imposed by Democratic leadership is now looming. As of last week, Senate negotiators were considering federal incentives for states’ red-flag laws and increased funding for school security measures and mental health programs. Limited expansion of background checks was also part of discussions.
Consider that many of these measures — with the exception of a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons — already have become Washington state law, thanks to the Legislature and citizen initiatives, including bans on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and ghost guns; universal background checks; a red-flag law; an age requirement of 21 for purchase of semi-automatic rifles; limits that bar the open-carry of firearms at demonstrations, public meetings and election facilities; and laws mandating safe storage of firearms in the home.
And while some legal challenges are ongoing, including one against Washington state’s ban of high-capacity magazines, none has yet to be overturned in courts as an infringement of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment has recognized limits.
“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” wrote the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the 2008 Heller decision that upheld the individual right to possess a firearm, continuing, “the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
As well, it’s important to remember that many of these measures are necessary not only to limit the carnage of mass shootings but to address the crisis of gun suicides, which account for about 3 of every 5 firearm deaths.
With or without Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s unspecified deadline for Senate negotiators, the possibilities of anything significant coming to a floor vote now seem to be dwindling.
Attention is turning — and not unduly — to other issues, including the ongoing hearings of the House’s select committee’s investigation of the events surrounding the Jan. 2, 2021, insurrection and the pending release by the Supreme Court of a ruling that many expect will overturn access to abortion under Roe v. Wade.
That the firearms issue has held the attention of Congress and the public this long defies recent experience following similar mass shootings. That window may be closing now.
As successful as some states, such as Washington, have been in passing effective and reasonable limits on firearms, national standards and laws are necessary to eliminate the loopholes that some seek to exploit.
The 45,222 lives lost to firearm suicides and homicides in 2020, a record year, speak to the need for broader action. Congress, thus, is responsible for what happens and what doesn’t.
The pediatrician who testified last week before the House and described the horrors he witnessed, Dr. Roy Guerrero, told Congress that doctors can only do so much to save lives.
“My oath as a doctor means that I signed up to save lives. I do my job,” he said. “And I guess it turns out that I am here to plead, to beg, to please, please do yours.”