First Steps toward Reasonable Gun Regulation?

I accept the reality of slippery slopes. Sometimes lifting the corner of the tent does allow the camel to stick his nose in. And these are not necessarily bad things. A lot depends on the angle of the slope and the size of the camel. Sometimes a good result requires a modest start, so modest that it is not worth obstructing.  And yet – like the little stone rolling down a snow covered hill – as it continues to gain momentum, it grows in size and force until it is unstoppable.

That’s why I’m slightly optimistic about the push in the Congress, the Supreme Court and state legislatures to enact reasonable gun regulation. Despite a 24 hour sit in by 170 Democrats, the House of Representatives remains bound to the Speaker’s vow of inaction. However, Rep. Ryan has agree to put a bill supported by the NRA up for a vote. The bill would prevent a suspected terrorist from purchasing a gun for three days while the FBI investigated the person. Democrats have rejected the bill as toothless. Meanwhile, the Senate, having voted down four proposed gun bills, is considering a compromise bill that would prevent persons on terrorist watch lists from purchasing firearms.

At the state level more substantive legislation is taking shape. Gov. Jerry Brown signed 6 gun regulation bills approved by the California General Assembly. These bills would limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, require background checks for bullet purchases, restrict the lending of firearms, prevent the sale of guns designed to circumvent a law against detachable magazines, outlaw “straw” purchases, and criminalize (as a misdemeanor) the failure to report the loss or theft of a gun. And, the Supreme Court recently rejected a challenge to a 2013 Connecticut law banning a number of types of semiautomatic rifles. A challenge to a similar New York law was also rejected by the Court.

The renewed push to pass gun regulation is the response to the latest mass shooting, the killing of 49 people and the wounding of 53 others at an Orlando, FL, club popular with the local LGBT community on June 12. This resulted in the largest number of victims of a mass shooting in modern US history. For the first time since the Republican takeover of the US Congress and 30 states (governors and legislatures), some reasonable form of gun regulation seems possible.

I’m not counseling irrational optimism. Many people expected some form of gun regulation after the slaughter of 20 children and 6 adults at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Nothing. Nothing after the San Bernardino killing of 14 people and the wounding of 22 in January, 2016. Nothing in response to recent mass killings in Fort Hood, TX;  Roseburg, OR; Aurora, CO; and, Charleston, SC. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of the mass killings, the aggressive NRA opposition to the most modest efforts at gun regulation, or the intransigence of Republicans in response to any proposed gun reform legislations that has made Democrats willing to take action. Or perhaps it’s the nationwide outrage of a well-organized and visible Democratic constituency that has forced Democratic politicians to risk the ire of the IRA and conservative voters to stand up for gun reform.

It doesn’t matter why. What matters is that the Democrats have begun to push the pebble down the hill.

Of course, these legislative proposals will have no immediate effect on my city, Chicago. Assault rifles, registration of legal gun purchases, and NRA membership have nothing to do with this year’s total of 2061 shootings to-date, 308 of them fatal. The victims are overwhelmingly young men of color, 77% of them black. Despite the national emphasis on “assault rifles,” the weapons of choice in Chicago shootings are handguns, including some semiautomatics.

“Mass” shootings are rare: only 7 incidents occurred in which 5 persons were shot (with a total of five killed); there were 12 incidents in which 4 people were shot (with 3 fatalities); and, 47 incidents in which 3 persons were shot (resulting in 20 deaths). Most commonly multiple shootings involve 2 victims; there were 200 so far in 2016, with 53 deaths. And unlike the mass shooting incidents in which 100% of the shooters have been captured or killed, in 81% of Chicago homicides no suspect has been arrested.

What seems clear to me, as well as to many other people, is that gun regulation is only a part of the solution to Chicago’s problem of gun violence. It is also clear that gun laws that focus on large magazine semiautomatic combat weapons, terrorist watch lists, and registration will do little to change the pattern of gang warfare conducted with small arms on Chicago’s streets. Perhaps as the violence spills out of the black neighborhoods on the south and west sides into gentrifying areas of the city, Chicago’s elites will find it in their interest to obtain a real understanding of why the violence occurs and what it will take to diminish it.

In the mean while, a few pebbles have been pushed down the hill with sincerity and hope. Perhaps they will continue to roll with increasing force until they reach the forsaken areas of my city.

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