On Guns, Trump Deserves More Credit than the Florida Legislature
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On Guns, Trump Deserves More Credit than the Florida Legislature

He Gives a Nod to the Problem, Not the Finger

Trump deserves credit for a creative move on guns: Even as he prepped for a “listening session” yesterday with students, parents and teachers who’ve been through mass school shootings, he (or his staff) found a position that would look responsive to calls for more gun controls, one that might even help public safety.

After all, his struggle is to find a position that appears to acknowledge the rising public demand for gun controls while not offending his voter base or the National Rifle Association.

In the end, however, Trump’s words blessing elimination of “bump stocks” that turn semi-automated guns into fully automatic ones and to coordinate more information for existing background checks, likely will not change much about guns, mental health or public safety.

Neither would address the fatal Parkland shootings, for example. There also were reports that Trump may back raising the minimum age for purchasing guns, which might have had an effect.

At the White House, the meeting with student shooting victims and parents was just as sad, but far different in tone, than the angry student protest in the streets in Tallahasee. The White House seemed tilted toward suggestions like arming teachers and staff rather than banning assault-style rifles. Of course, in Tallahassee, lawmakers were rejecting any ban on rifles but declaring porn a danger for young people.

And, as policy proposals, asking the Justice Department to go full out in drafting a regulatory approach to banning the bump stocks to be enforced by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosions bureau in the Department of Treasury, is most likely to result in endless lawsuits about enforcement techniques. That’s not my conclusion so much as it is the ATF’s itself, which was not alerted before Trump made the impromptu remarks yesterday in an unrelated medal ceremony.

As political theater, I give Trump’s ploy a good rating. As policy, declaring a rule is not as good as passing legislation, which is what is called for here. No one, including the president, could know what enforcement efforts for bump stocks looks like, and passed legislation has a much better chance of withstanding a court challenge. Gun control advocates will see this move as too little; congressional conservatives may see the president’s modest proposals as too much.

As for the backgrounding bill, currently co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the proposal would be a welcome, if small, step toward actually filling the databases used in background checks with appropriate information from different agencies. Specifically, the Fix NCIS bill would make it much more likely for states and federal agencies to upload information about people who are supposed to be barred from purchasing firearms into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

It’s the kind of move that even the NRA should favor, and certainly in line with the kind of public support for background checks that are winning overwhelming support in polls.

However, House Republican conservatives were threatening to abandon Trump and Cornyn, seeking instead to couple the backgrounding effort with so-called “concealed-carry” legislation backed by the NRA. Combining the two ideas would have the net effect of loosening gun controls, observers suggest.

The Los Angeles Times editorialized, “Trump was right in insisting that the federal government ban ‘bump stocks.’ But there’s less than meets the eye to the directive he sent to the Justice Department to rush through a new regulation, already in the works, that would ban the devices. . .”

Just for reality here, automatic weapons like machine guns are banned in the U.S. Semi-automatics still can shoot several bullets with one trigger pull; state caps on magazine capacities vary between 10 to 30 bullets per magazine. Bump stocks make semis work as automatics. Fox News reported that after Trump’s endorsement to bar bump stocks, the price of such equipment rose noticeably on gun auction sites.

A number of columnists are pressing for action—or lack of it, in strenuous partisan fashion. Along the way, the efforts of the student victims in Washington and Tallahassee are becoming a matter of debate, with right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage saying students were being used by Democrats-gun control advocates including wealthy George Soros, who funds liberal causes.

Guns, like few other issues (abortion and immigration, anyone?), evince strong and unchanging political positions, and the debate over which way this country wants to turn is not so much about gun safety or school safety or mental health as it is about a basic vision of what it means to be an American these days. The rough choice is about caring about individual rights even when paired in some weird culturally social way against the right to not have lunatics running around using semi-automated rifles to shoot students, teachers, concert goers, church assemblies and the like.

In the Wall Street Journal this week, conservative columnist Holman Jenkins argued that “the gun issue draws out us-vs.-them distinctions that are eminently exploitable for fundraising and political purposes. But what about the rest of us? When a problem seems insoluble, redefine it, enlarge it or shrink it in some way. That’s often good advice.”

It is a position that seems enormously helpful. Jenkins went on to outline a potential trade-off of some civil liberties in the form of increased backgrounding and surveillance of selected individuals for more personal security and safety. Think of how we are approaching foreign terrorist suspects; as a society, we are willing, even expecting, more scrutiny to keep us safer.

An op-ed in The New York Times by psychiatrist Amy Barnhorst in Northern California detailed exactly the results of such surveillance. As with the suspect in the Parkland shootings, her referred patient had several run-ins with authorities, finally to be referred to her for an examination that could result in temporary confinement. She detailed the futilities involved because, in the end, the mental health situation was and nearly always will be too clouded to know for sure whether confinement is appropriate.

Personally, I think we all need a lot more mental health services altogether, for reasons absolutely separated from guns. Relationship counseling, career counseling, dealing with depression, openness to change, conflict resolutions—the topics go on and on. It’s an easy argument to make that our society doesn’t deal well with most paradigms other than competition and Me First-ism.

But none of this would be the kind of mental health that is under discussion. Instead, “mental health” is being used as a euphemism for removal of the shooter, either by confinement or an order not to sell the individual a gun. Again, I’d argue that rules governing the availability of assault-type weapons are a lot easier to enforce.

I’ll give Trump more credit for at least appearing to listen than for the Florida legislature, which slammed the door on student protesters by refusing to vote to revisit availability of assault-type weapons.

Featured image: White House video of Trump’s ‘listening session’ with shooting victims and families.

February 22, 2018