Easy access to the assault rifles used in many high-profile mass killings represents only a small part of the nation’s problem with gun violence. Most shootings in this country involve handguns, which still are traced and regulated in a haphazard manner.
So it’s encouraging that the working group led by Vice President Joe Biden, who will present recommendations to the President on Tuesday, will consider more sweeping changes to the nation’s gun laws and regulations than just reinstating the expired federal assault weapons ban, including executive orders that don’t need Congressional approval.
With the backing of law enforcement leaders, the Biden group is considering, among other things, requiring universal background checks for firearm buyers, tracking the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, tightening mental health checks, and stiffening penalties for carrying guns near schools.
Background checks are not now required in private sales by unlicensed dealers. These are generally sensible steps that should have been taken years ago.
It’s not enough to regulate illegal guns. Most guns recovered from crime scenes are legal guns that were bought, sold, or possessed illegally. Among the most popular choices are small, easily concealed handguns, including .38-caliber revolvers, 9mms, Glocks, and .44 Magnums.
People with even the most violent backgrounds can buy these guns through straw purchasers who acquire them legally.
No law will keep all deadly weapons out of the hands of people who would use them to maim or murder, but tighter controls would make it more difficult for such people to acquire them, and get them without detection. The government should, however, move cautiously when considering additional restrictions for select groups. Imposing additional regulations on every person with a mental illness, for example, is unnecessary and discriminatory.
Requiring gun dealers to notify local law enforcement of a handgun purchase would help police track guns. So would requiring states to issue a separate and secure identification card for all gun buyers. The card would provide some information to individuals who sell guns but can’t access the federal system for background checks.
The federal ban on assault rifles needs to be renewed — and strengthened. The ban covered 19 kinds of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Still, components that could make an assault rifle illegal — a collapsible stock, pistol grip, automatic ammunition clip, or large-capacity magazine — could still be purchased legally and used to modify an otherwise legal gun. The ban also excluded the sale of previously manufactured assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Gun control measures enjoy widespread public support, but a lack of organized efforts to advance them have made it easy for well-organized and well-funded groups such as the National Rifle Association to get their way with politicians.
Gun control measures won’t happen until politicians believe they will pay a price for opposing them.
To be successful, the Obama Adminstration must do a far better job of organizing the public, allowing the people to take the lead on a broad and overdue strategy to control gun violence.
Coming up with such a multiprong plan is the first step. The Obama Administration appears to be finally willing to take it.