Consistent majorities of Americans favor sensible gun-control laws. Of course, there’s disagreement as to what counts as “sensible,” but it hardly matters. No gun control of any kind seems to be possible as long as the NRA maintains its inexplicable death grip over federal law-makers.
I’ve sort of given up on the issue. A few years ago, my colleague and friend Jean Eggen and I wrote a series of articles (look for “gun” in title of articles appearing here) arguing that tort and public health law should be used to fill some of the holes that Congress had created. Since then, though, matters have only gotten worse. The nadir was reached in 2005, with the enactment of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which not only removed most theories of liability that might otherwise have prevailed in court, but also dismissed any and all pending suits, if otherwise prohibited by this new law. A shameful bipartisan majority in both chambers handed the gun lobby its greatest victory, and the outcry, except from organizations like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, was muted. Why bother?
Of course, none of this means that the problem of gun violence has gone away — just that gun control, as least at the federal level, is off the table. Name the outrage, and the gun lobby has an excuse. The ease of obtaining guns in the U.S. is fueling the drug wars in Mexico, and — I just learned — gang wars in Jamaica? The former is blamed on poor border control; I’m sure a similar response to the latter will be forthcoming. Of course, home-grown massacres elicit a collective shuddering, but no real mention of substantial restrictions on gun ownership.
Cities alone seem to understand the need for more legislative control, likely because they face the consequences of violence more routinely. Yet their efforts to do something — anything — are often rebuffed by courts that say, sometimes with legal justification — that regulation of guns is a state, and not a city matter. Pennsylvania is a good case study here. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need better gun control laws, but the state, dominated by the rural middle, whose hunters and representatives are NRA guys, will have none of it.
Thus, Philly’s effort to stop straw purchases — where someone buys a gun for another not legally entitled to own one, like a felon or a minor — were struck down last week by an appellate court because of state supreme court precedent holding that only the state can regulate guns. (The law also would have limited gun buys to one per month, a number obviously too low to live with.) Now Pittsburgh’s anti-gun trafficking law is being challenged by the NRA, too; the Brady Center is defending the city’s right to pass this needed bill.
At this point, it seems that only a searing epidemic of gun violence beyond any we’ve seen or the rise of a lobbying group equal in money and power to the NRA can begin to bring us towards more sensible gun control; the kind that police departments all over the country routinely call for.