Few issues explain Americans frustration with Washington better than guns. Even as violent crime has declined over the last 25 years, gun violence is nearing a four decades high. We know that guns are the primary culprit (as opposed to video games or any number of other red herrings) because, when compared with other countries, America’s crime stats are largely comparable, but we’re 25 times more likely to die by gun. Yet despite the fact that 61 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, nothing gets done. Year after year. Tragedy after tragedy. Murder after murder. Washington does nothing.
The problem, of course, isn’t that members of Congress aren’t paying attention to the gun issue. They are. Each time there’s another tragedy or act of domestic terrorism, activists on both sides of the issue take to the cable news networks yet again, either expressing outrage at the fact of gun violence, or else parroting the same tired talking points about how guns don’t kill people—people do. And the laws remain the same.
Here’s the underlying roadblock. The two sides in the gun debate are so entrenched that they never get to the root of the problem. The great miracle of American democracy is that we come to better decisions explicitly because we get people with different points talking to one another. But on gun safety, everyone’s too busy screaming past one another to hear what the other side is saying.
What would happen if everyone stopped shouting for a minute? The first thing they’d realize is that neither side really knows what it’s talking about to the degree that it claims. How can I write that when pithy and devastating graphics are flying around social media? Because the truth is that while America undoubtedly has a gun violence problem, we don’t really know exactly what would work to alleviate it.
It’s easy enough to say it’s the prevalence of violent video games—but there really isn’t any research to back up that contention. It intuitively makes sense that it’s the so-called “gun-show loophole,” which allows many people purchasing guns to avoid any sort of background check. But as The New York Times explained: “A vast majority of guns used in 19 recent mass shootings—including those in Newtown, Conn.; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Las Vegas—were bought legally and after the gunman passed a federal background check.”
Most ordinary people caught in an argument about what to do about a problem would hear those two facts and be inspired to dive into the research. But Congress remains perpetually in the dark in part because the Dickey Amendment, an obscure law passed in 1994, has had the effect of freezing gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control, which is America’s pre-eminent funder of public health research. That’s why Rand Corporation researchers trying to analyze the underlying causes of gun violence concluded: “With a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies.”
Fortunately, legislators are starting to get the message, and ideas that have shown potential are back on the table. For example, studies show that while mental health problems alone do not predispose people to gun violence, a history of violent behavior—fighting, vandalism, etc.—often does serve as a predictor. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are working on two versions of “red flag” laws that would allow law enforcement to take guns from people who are deemed a credible risk.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that good ideas have bubbled up from quiet negotiation—but we need leaders to keep pushing. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) worked to close the gun-show loophole, but their bill failed in the Senate and the House never took it up. They’re working to get that initiative going again, and Rubio is working to find a way to crack down on dealers whose (gun) sales end up being used in an excessive number of crimes.
In the end, this isn’t just about gun safety—though that’s important. The morass on Capitol Hill is about how Washington legislates, and gun safety serves as a crystal clear example of how bad Washington has become. Democracy works only if those with different points of view try to bridge their differences. If people are so caught up in their own rhetoric, nothing gets done. The key today is to use the nation’s clear frustration with gun violence as impetus to change Washington. If we can make progress on gun safety, we’ll have beaten a path for bipartisan progress on other issues as well.
Margaret White is executive director of no labels.