No Labels Blog

Eyes Forward: Let’s Lose Our Collective Amnesia on Weapons Bans, High Tax Rates

By Charles Babington
September 10, 2019 | Blog

How soon we forget. Despite horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and elsewhere involving military-grade weapons, Congress shows no real interest in considering a ban on such firearms. It’s as if the idea is too preposterous to even contemplate. And yet when an assault weapons ban was in effect 16 years ago, the world kept turning and studies show there were fewer mass shootings.

Or consider tax policy. A top marginal income tax rate of, say, 70 percent would be utterly outrageous, a notion only for lunatics, right? Well, that was the top tax rate when Ronald Reagan was elected president. (And it was a whopping 91 percent under President Eisenhower!). Some Americans look back on those times as happy and prosperous.

Finally, consider comprehensive immigration reform. We now have a Republican-run Senate and White House that won’t even entertain the idea. But 13 years ago, a GOP-controlled Senate easily passed such legislation and a Republican president was eager to sign it. It died in the House, and today it’s a distant memory at best.

What’s remarkable about these scenarios is that activists have managed to push public debate on key issues much closer to the ideological fringes, creating new political “norms” far removed from the previous ones.

It’s one thing to decide, after serious debate, that America doesn’t want another assault weapons ban. (Or a top marginal tax rate of, say, 50 or 55 percent. Today it’s 37 percent.) But it’s another thing to engage in collective amnesia, as if these ideas are absurd, unimaginable and completely untested.

The nation’s centrists – or pragmatists or moderates, or whatever you prefer to call them – have done a poor job of reminding voters that things weren’t so bad under the old policies, and those policies could serve as useful reference points for today’s debates. Indeed, those earlier laws had some merits: Budget deficits were lower when higher tax rates applied to the wealthiest households (although many factors affect deficits). Military-style weapons weren’t as easily available, although of course no single law will stop mass shootings.

 Our hazy memories have helped ideologues push previous policies off the table without first having to show they were clearly harmful – let alone destructive – and therefore deserving their political nuking. So today’s debates play out within parameters far more to the ideologues’ liking, and far from the political centers of the recent past.

We may not want to revive the 70 percent marginal tax rate. But it’s remarkable that many in Congress won’t consider even a tiny increase to the current 37 percent – roughly half the old rate – despite today’s soaring deficits and debt.

Perhaps the most salient current example, given the deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton, involves gun violence. Lawmakers are still discussing modest steps, such as better background checks on prospective gun buyers. Even that, however, appears unlikely.

Why is there so little defense of earlier and tougher restrictions?

At least some are trying. Veteran journalist and longtime hunter and gun-owner Howell Raines, writing in The Washington Post, called for a return to the gun laws of around 1960. Then, he says, “law-abiding hunters and target shooters had all the weapons and firepower they needed and were not in a state of constant turmoil over state and federal laws that restricted most shotguns to three rounds and most semiautomatic rifles and handguns to fewer than 20 rounds… Nobody argued that a six-shot revolver was inadequate for home-protection emergencies,” and most hunters were content.

As for the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban, former president Bill Clinton recently tweeted: “How many more people have to die before we reinstate the assault weapons ban & the limit on high-capacity magazines & pass universal background checks? After they passed in 1994, there was a big drop in mass shooting deaths. When the ban expired, they rose again.”

Two Stanford University researchers refute claims that the assault weapons ban was ineffective. Writing in The New York Times, they say“public mass shootings– which we defined as incidents in which a gunman killed at least six people in public– dropped during the decade of the federal ban. Yet, in the 15 years since the ban ended, the trajectory of gun massacres has been sharply upward, largely tracking the growth in ownership of military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

Bottom Line: Gun laws, tax rates, immigration and other big issues deserve serious debate, especially as a presidential election nears. These debates should not ignore recent history, when laws dramatically different from today’s yielded reasonable results.

[Charles Babington is a longtime politics reporter based in Washington.]

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