The New Lines of the Gun-Reform Battle

Firearms


A 2022 Supreme Court ruling changed the boundaries of America’s fight over guns. The latest mass-shooting tragedies raise the question: Where does gun reform go next?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


Far More Permissive

The public-radio editor Erika Mahoney, whose father was killed in a mass shooting at a grocery store two years ago, wrote yesterday that every mass shooting is its own metastasizing loss, weaving a “web of pain” that extends far beyond its victims.

Mass shootings are also “a national disgrace,” the Stanford Law School professor John J. Donohue argues in a new Atlantic essay. Each compounding tragedy—most recently, Monday’s mass shooting at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, and the March 27 shooting at a Nashville elementary school—highlights “the inability of the American political system to adopt numerous popular public-policy strategies that together could substantially reduce the prevalence and destructiveness of these events.”

Donohue, who has been studying the links between guns and crime for 25 years, notes that though a federal assault-weapons ban was in place for a decade, it lapsed in 2004. Now “the gun lobby is challenging every valuable gun-safety law throughout the United States, with the belief that Republican appointees on the Supreme Court will protect the right to sell lethal weaponry to as many Americans as possible,” he writes.

So far, that belief seems to hold some truth. Ryan Busse, a senior policy adviser to the gun-safety advocacy group Giffords, argued late last year that the Supreme Court’s June decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen is a dangerous destruction of precedent. The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, changed the framework that courts use when determining the constitutionality of firearm regulations:

The Court’s conservative majority would judge all firearms regulations by a new originalist standard: If there is no historical proof of a gun law linked to 1791 or 1868—the years when the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively, were ratified—then any modern law restricting firearms is liable to be ruled unconstitutional. Never mind that any teenager with a modern AR-15 rifle can fire several times every second, whereas a well-trained 18th-century soldier could fire a musket, at best, three or four times a minute.

The ruling, in other words, broadened interpretations of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to protect an individual’s right to legally carry a handgun in public. That decision has transformed the fight over guns in America, the legal scholar Timothy Zick and the council member Diana Palmer explained last year. The question is no longer “who can buy guns or what guns can be bought but where these firearms can be carried, every day, by the millions and millions of Americans who own them.”

Donohue, the Stanford Law School professor, concedes that many Americans support expansive rights to gun ownership. “But,” he adds, “it’s still the case that the political system is producing an outcome far more permissive than what the population wants.” He points out the disparity that exists even between National Rifle Association leaders and the organization’s own members:

Repeated surveys show that while the NRA membership consistently supports reasonable measures such as universal background checks, NRA leaders stake out a much more extreme position. Following the February 2018 high-school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, then-President Donald Trump announced that we needed more gun control and that he was not afraid of the NRA. But when the NRA head, Wayne LaPierre, told Trump to stop the push for universal background checks—then supported by 90 percent of people who voted Republican in the 2018 midterm election—Trump stopped.

Polls from the past decade suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases. So what can Congress and the U.S. government do to better align the nation’s gun regulations with the views of its citizens? Donohue argues that any approach short of a federal assault-weapons ban, with restrictions on high-capacity magazines, will not be enough to prevent future mass shootings. He also recommends removing loopholes that allow some gun buyers to skirt protocols in the federal background-check system, and improving public education on the dangers of allowing disturbed individuals access to guns. But he’s not optimistic that these interventions are possible, given the “corrosively powerful” domestic gun industry that stands against them.

In light of the immense influence of this industry, my colleague David Frum made the case in 2021 for a gun-reform strategy that focuses on changing the minds and behaviors of individual people:

It would be good to reverse the permissive trends in gun law. It would be good to ban the preferred weapons of mass shooters. It would be good to have a stronger system of background checks. It would be good to stop so many Americans from carrying guns in public … But even if none of those things happens—and there is little sign of them happening anytime soon—progress can be made against gun violence, as progress was once made against other social evils: by persuading Americans to stop, one by one by one.

Frum offers the example of drunk driving as a potential blueprint: The action has been illegal in the United States since cars became ubiquitous, but those laws weren’t consistently enforced until the 1980s, with the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving by a woman who had lost her daughter to a repeat hit-and-run driver.

“MADD convinced American drivers that they were not weak or unmanly if they surrendered the car keys after drinking too much,” Frum writes. “That kind of cultural change beckons now.”

Related:


Today’s News

  1. NPR announced that it will no longer post new content to its 52 official Twitter feeds following the platform’s decision to label the network “state-affiliated media,” a term it uses for propaganda outlets in autocratic countries (the company later changed the label to “government-funded media”). The broadcaster is the first major news organization to go silent on the social-media platform.
  2. Approximately 2,000 eastern Indiana residents have been ordered to evacuate due to toxic smoke emissions from a massive recycling-plant fire in the city of Richmond. The blaze, which began yesterday, could continue burning for several days.
  3. The e-cigarette company Juul reached a $462 million settlement with New York, California, and several other states, resolving multiple lawsuits over the company’s purported marketing to young people.

Dispatches

  • The Weekly Planet: Conservationists pride themselves on protecting all of Earth’s life, but, Emma Marris argues, their field often overlooks the most common type of life.
  • Up for Debate: Broader news coverage—and less political reporting—could lead to a better-informed population, Conor Friedersdorf writes.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

An illustration of Nate Shelley
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Apple TV+.

The Real Hero of Ted Lasso

By Megan Garber

Ted Lasso, like an athlete meeting the moment, peaked at the right time. The show premiered during the waning months of Donald Trump’s presidency; against that backdrop, its positivity felt like catharsis, its soft morals a rebuke. Soon, Ted Lasso was winning fans and Emmys. Articles were heralding it as an answer to our ills. The accolades recognized the brilliance of a show that weaves Dickensian plots with postmodern wit. But they were also concessions. Kindness should not be radical. Empathy should not be an argument. Here we were, though, as so much was falling apart, turning a wacky comedy about British soccer into a plea for American politics.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Brea

Illustration
Photo-illustration by Oliver Munday. Sources: Samir Hussein / WireImage / Getty; Alfred Ellis & Walery / Getty.

Read. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer, explains why it’s okay to like good art by bad people.

Watch. Our critic argues that Air, in theaters, delivers more substance than you’d expect from a film about a mega-company’s best-known win.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Although I didn’t spend much time talking about Erika Mahoney’s essay above, I recommend sitting with it when you’re ready to step away from the policy side of the firearm conversation and reflect on the emotional toll of this violence. The essay is an honest portrayal of losing a parent to a mass shooting, and of revisiting that pain with every news alert of another such tragedy.

— Isabel

Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.



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