THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING GUN CONTROL DEBATE. The political argument over gun control has erupted again after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead. It's the same argument that erupts after every mass shooting. But this time, on Capitol Hill at least, it seems more muted, and the measures under consideration are more limited than in the past.
Of course, the usual heated rhetoric is being thrown around by the usual suspects on cable TV and the internet — just look at the number of accusations that Republicans have "blood on their hands." But this time, even though the Uvalde shooting followed shortly after a mass shooting that killed 10 in Buffalo, New York, gun control advocates in Congress are setting their sights low.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is one of the Hill's most determined advocates of new gun control measures. In 2016, after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead, Murphy launched an old-fashioned talking filibuster on behalf of new gun restrictions. He spoke for 14 hours and 50 minutes straight, but in the end, he failed to pass the measures he wanted. Murphy supports universal background checks, an "assault weapons" ban, limiting high-capacity magazines, and more action against straw purchasers and illegal weapons sales.
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Murphy, in whose state the worst school shooting in U.S. history, the Sandy Hook killings, occurred in 2012, had a visceral reaction to events in Uvalde. "Oh my god," he tweeted as the news broke. "I'm shaking. I'm just shaking all over. With fear. With anger. With resolve." A short time later, he went to the floor of the Senate to ask colleagues, "What are we doing? What are we doing?"
But the next day, when Murphy appeared on PBS NewsHour, he seemed to stress the limits of what he might accomplish. "We probably can't get a universal background check bill," he said. "We probably can't get the votes for a ban on assault weapons. But maybe we can do some smaller things."
That seems to be the theme after Uvalde: Do smaller things. When PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff asked what specific measures Murphy will be attempting to pass, he answered, "We're talking about some minor expansions of background checks, getting more sales through the background check system. We're talking about red flag laws. These are the laws that allow you to take weapons away from people who are showing signs of breaks with reality or are showing signs of future violence. Those are the kinds of things that we might be able to find 60 votes on. But we will see."
Late Wednesday night, Murphy posted a video update. He had spent the day talking to any Republican or Democratic senator who would listen, he said. He mentioned the same kind of proposals he listed on PBS NewsHour and then added, "But I am not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Even with that fairly explicit offer of compromise, he offered no hope that he would actually succeed on any of those measures and did not promise anything more than an "honest attempt" to take action.
And that is where perhaps the most resolute advocate of gun control in the Senate stands today. Murphy's modesty is an example of how much the debate over guns has shrunk in the past 20 years since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and the Supreme Court's Heller decision in 2008. Hopes of banning certain types of weapons or firearms altogether or even imposing strict limits have died.
One could say that when Congress passed no significant measures after Sandy Hook, when a deranged 20-year-old used a semi-automatic weapon to kill 20 schoolchildren between ages 6 and 7, plus six adults, then it wasn't going to do anything, ever. And indeed, lawmakers did not and also failed to act after a number of other mass shootings in the years that followed. And that, perhaps, has led to the modesty of the efforts after Uvalde.
In the wake of a horrific mass shooting involving a semi-automatic rifle, like what has just happened, it is hard to remember the fact that by far the largest part of America's gun violence problem is handguns, many of which are used in violation of strict local gun control laws in places like Chicago. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott specifically cited that problem in his remarks immediately after Uvalde. "I know that people like to try to oversimplify this," Abbott said. "Let's talk about some real facts. And that is, there are, quote, 'real guns laws' in Chicago. There are, quote, 'real gun laws' in New York. There are 'real gun laws' in California. I hate to say this, but there are more people who are shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas. And we need to realize that people who think that, well, maybe we can just implement tougher gun laws, it's gonna solve it — Chicago and L.A. and New York disprove that thesis. And so, if you're looking for a real solution, Chicago teaches that what you're talking about is not a real solution. Our job is to come up with real solutions that we can implement."
Political leaders in those places quickly protested Abbott's remarks, but the fact is, there is a multifaceted gun violence problem in the United States. Most of it involves criminals using handguns. Some of it involves domestic violence, almost always involving handguns. Some of it involves suicides, again with handguns. And a very small part of it, perhaps the smallest but most intensely affecting part, involves people using semi-automatic rifles to commit mass murders. Many local solutions, such as Chicago's laws, self-evidently do not work. And at the moment, any sort of federal version of those ineffective local solutions is politically impossible.
So Murphy and his allies have lowered their ambitions. Some of their proposals, such as improved background checks and limits on the size of magazines, might help a little and do not compromise any fundamental constitutional rights. Maybe they can become law. But Washington's reaction to Uvalde is telling. The problem is horrendous, both in events like school shootings and in everyday violent crime. It might get worse, or it might get better on its own. But nobody knows how to solve it.
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