The GOP’s Gun Temptation

In Parkland’s wake, Trump and Rubio flirt with feel-good but ineffective solutions.

Protestors gather at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee to push for stricter gun regulation, Feb. 21.
Protestors gather at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee to push for stricter gun regulation, Feb. 21. PHOTO: COLIN ABBEY/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERS/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Republicans have held the political high ground on gun rights for decades, and they’ve done it by sticking together and sticking to the facts. Nothing will lose them that credibility faster than if they jump on the false-hope bandwagon.

The Parkland, Fla., school shooting is rightly causing a new national debate. With astounding cynicism, Democrats rushed to capitalize on dead teens, while ineffectually dragging out the same fatigued arguments they’ve been making since the Clinton era. They are back again with the “assault weapons” cry—calling for an arbitrary ban on a handful of scary-looking guns, when millions of other firearms can kill just as efficiently. (The 1994 assault-weapon ban was still in effect at the time of the 1999 Columbine massacre.) They are back again with confiscation, even though they know it’s a nonstarter with the Supreme Court and the public. The Parkland community deserves real policy proposals, not more empty posturing.

The GOP has excelled in recent decades in pointing out the barrenness of this gun-control agenda with statistics and common sense. And they’ve pointed out the unifying thread behind these mass-shooting events: mental illness. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy spent three years pushing legislation to overhaul and bring accountability to federal mental-health programs, and President Obama finally signed it in December 2016.

 The Murphy bill was the product of a methodical and thoughtful effort to reform a system that wasn’t working. Such deliberateness is in contrast with the half-baked proposals now emanating from President Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio. Both men have said they favor banning adults under 21 from buying rifles. Mr. Trump is also talking about training and arming schoolteachers, and Mr. Rubio is latching on to restrictions on the size of magazines.

This is the politics of false-hope—Democrat-lite. Age limits may sound good, but most teenage violent criminals steal firearms from adults. An age limit wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook (who used his mother’s guns) or the Columbine killers (who obtained their guns from adult friends). It wouldn’t have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter or the Umpqua Community College shooter in Oregon, who were 23 and 26, respectively. An age limit is as empty a gesture as a ban on so-called assault weapons. As is a call for a large-capacity magazine ban, which is easily circumvented by reloading quickly. Arming teachers is an interesting idea, but it still doesn’t get to the root of the problem—stopping insane people from getting guns.

The Trump-Rubio proposals stem from that fatal Washington compulsion: a need to be seen as doing something. What’s odd is that it is unnecessary. There’s plenty Republicans could do in Parkland’s wake that is far more sensible, and would do far more good.

House and Senate committees could investigate the FBI’s failure to respond to warnings about the Parkland killer. This doesn’t need to be a bash-the-FBI episode, but law-enforcement failure has—along with mental health—become a defining feature of many mass shootings.

Republicans can also quickly pass the Fix NICS Act, which would fill holes in the background-check system—holes that we know led directly to mass-shooter firearm purchases that should have been barred. Some House Republicans demand that Fix NICS be combined in a single bill with a measure compelling states to recognize one another’s concealed-carry permits. That’s an invitation to the left to portray them as obstructionist. Instead, the House should pass each bill separately and let red-state Senate Democrats face the consequences for killing a gun-rights priority.

The biggest favor the GOP can do is to tackle the mental-health question in all its thorny complexity. The public understands the problem here. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that nearly 8 in 10 voters believe more-effective mental health screening and treatment would have prevented Parkland. That’s far more than favor most gun-control measures.

Some politicians are broaching the question of how to ensure the severely mentally ill don’t have access to guns. That would require a rewrite of federal health-privacy law, which currently makes it all but impossible to monitor the severely mentally ill. Rep. Murphy’s bill originally proposed revisions, but Democrats stripped them out at the behest of advocacy groups. Even most Republicans are too timid to venture into this civil-liberties space, since it requires a frank discussion about state commitment laws, court orders and appropriate protections.

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Appeared in the February 23, 2018, print edition.

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