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Littwin: If bipartisan Senate group proposes a mostly toothless gun law, should Dems support it?

We know the gun lobby and NRA oppose virtually every law concerning guns. Some Dems argue that passing any law could be a starting place for more.

Shockingly, the U.S. Senate may be on the verge of passing some kind of gun-safety law. Yes, I said it would never happen, and I might still be right. But if I’m wrong and it does get passed, it would be a mostly toothless law. 

Mike Littwin

Let us count the ways. It wouldn’t ban semi-automatic assault weapons and it wouldn’t raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy such weapons. There’s uncertainty as to whether it would address the one gun remedy most favored by Americans — polling numbers come in at around 90% — of universal background checks, including gun shows and private sales. These background checks do no harm to anyone or to the Second Amendment.

But it would have some kind of red flag law, which is designed to remove guns temporarily from those who are judged to be a danger to themselves and others. The red flag laws are so obvious that even Florida put one in after the Parkland massacre. But the other parts of the law would add more armed personnel to schools — which is better, at least, than arming teachers — and add money for mental health. I’m all for more money for mental health, but also pretty sure it would have basically no impact on most shootings, mass or otherwise. And we’ve seen armed personnel at schools fail repeatedly.

The question is whether to pass such a toothless law, which would nonetheless enrage the gun lobby, or insist that we do better. There’s the argument that doing something — anything — would lead to more opportunities. And there’s the argument that Republicans could then say they’ve done something and that will have to be enough.

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It’s a hard call. And I wouldn’t know which call to make until or unless there is an actual bill to consider.

Here’s some context. I just saw the scariest statistic in the wake of the latest mass shootings, which seem to be everywhere you look in the days following the slaughters in Buffalo and Uvalde. That’s an illusion, by the way. Those mass shootings have always been there, if in varying scales year to year.

But we only seem to notice the worst and most deadly of the shootings, especially hate-crime shootings, church shootings, mass school shootings and, most of all, mass school shootings in elementary schools. 

The sad truth is that most shootings simply go basically unnoticed. 

And still, the 40-plus-thousands of Americans who die of gunshot wounds each year is not the scariest number — not the thousands from suicides (often preventable), not the thousands from homicides (often preventable), not even those dying from accidental death (a 2-year-old’s mother is being held for manslaughter after the toddler shot and killed his father). Oh, yeah, the would-be compromise law also has nothing on safe gun storage, even though hundreds of kids annually accidentally kill themselves or others.

By the way, the 40-plus-thousand number is too rarely cited. We’re too busy counting the dead and wounded, say, on Philadelphia’s South Street, where an altercation that began with fisticuffs ended with a few people getting out their guns, killing three and wounding 15 others. As far as we know, the guns were purchased legally. By the way, there were many cops on the scene, making it clear, once again, the absurdity of the good-guy-with-a-gun argument, especially when we allow shooters to purchase AR-style assault weapons, which evolved from military weapons designed to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. 

Once upon a time, the statistic that Americans have nearly 400 million guns for 330 million people, was a shocker, but that was a while ago. Everyone knows the numbers of guns, despite the nationwide efforts not to have guns registered. Anyone who cares to know — the statistics are available everywhere — would have seen this equation: more guns = more death. You could look it up.

Now, I’m guessing I have you wondering, what could possibly be scarier than what we’ve been discussing. Well, here goes, and I hope you’re sitting down:

In the latest CBS-YouGuv poll, 44% of Republicans agreed with the notion that tolerating mass murders is simply part of the price we pay for our freedom — even if it happens to come at the expense of more than 40,000 lives, lives that belonged mostly to those who had no say in the matter. No wonder so many people seem to be largely unaffected by the more than a million Americans who have died of COVID. It’s the price we have to pay, I guess, so we don’t have to wear masks on airplanes or be forced to get vaccinated. 

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The 44% number is as shocking as any I’ve seen — except for maybe the one showing that gun violence now kills more Americans under the age of 20 than even the long-time death leader, auto accidents. 

The overall poll numbers are a little more encouraging. Seventy-two percent of Americans say we’re not trying hard enough to stop gun violence. But 44% of Republicans are more than enough to keep most Republican politicians in line. If anything is to be passed, it would require 10 Republican votes to overcome the inevitable filibuster. That’s why it’s toothless or nothing, although some Republicans would apparently agree to call for waiting periods for those under age 21.    

I did see some heartening news from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democratic senator who represents a state that is overwhelmingly Trumpian, the same Manchin who has taken it up himself — often with help from Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — to block much of Joe Biden’s and Democratic senators’ more progressive bills from becoming law. 

Manchin says he doesn’t understand why anyone needs assault-style  weapons. He thinks we should raise the age to buy any weapons to 21. Yes, he actually does.

And then there’s Bret Stephens, the conservative New York Times columnist who does a weekly online conversation with liberal columnist Gail Collins. Stephens calls for raising the age limit to purchase long guns to 21, for a requirement for every gun owner to buy a gun safe, for a psychiatric evaluation and criminal background check, for a three-day waiting period and for a comprehensive gun-safety course. As I’m reading this, I’m thinking that’s pretty much what I would say, other than also banning assault rifles and automatic pistols and severely limiting the size of ammunition magazines. 

Stephens even spelled out a great idea for a campaign ad for a moderate Democrat, which goes thusly:

“I believe in the Second Amendment. But not for this guy,” followed by a picture of the Tucson, Ariz., mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner; “or this guy” — a picture of Aurora, Colo., mass murderer James Holmes; “or this guy” — a picture of Newtown, Conn., mass murderer Adam Lanza.

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“It would continue: “I also believe in the right to own firearms responsibly for hunting and self-defense. But not for this” — a picture of the scene outside the Uvalde school; “or this” — a picture of the scene from the Buffalo grocery store; “or this” — scenes from the Parkland massacre.”

It goes on from there, incorporating Stephens’ ideas from above, but ends this way: “It’s not about denying your constitutional rights. It’s so your children come home from school alive.”

I don’t know why anyone would object to that. But, sadly, I know there are many millions of Americans who would object and do so loudly — so loudly that it nearly drowns out the constant gunfire we allow ourselves to live with.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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