Nearly three weeks after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Senate put forth bipartisan legislation on guns Monday. One problem: It doesn’t address gun control.
USA Today reports that the bill, which comes backed by a group of 22 Senators from both sides of the aisle — including Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — is geared more toward on-the-ground improvements that could be made at schools, rather than steps that could be taken to prevent prospective shooters from buying guns in the first place.
To be clear, the measures outlined in the Senate legislation read as reasonable requests. It proposes training students and staff to spot warning signs of possible violence in others; improving security infrastructure at schools; implementing threat assessment and crisis intervention teams to identify and analyze problem behavior (like online allusions to mass shootings); and bolstering channels of communication between schools and law enforcement.
None of these maneuvers would hurt, but now is the moment for Senators to say, “Yes, and.” Congress hasn’t moved on gun control in recent weeks — despite pressure from a vocal group of Parkland students pushing for the federal government to institute more aggressive restrictions on firearm ownership, and despite recent polls suggesting widespread support for tightening existing laws. According to Jay Corzine — a professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of Sociology, whose work has focused on violence and policy’s efficacy in reducing crime — the legislation the Senate has proposed constitutes “baby steps.”
“I’m sure there’s a desire to get something done [in the Senate], especially with the 2018 midterm elections looming on the horizon,” Corzine tells Refinery29. But: “The major items that would make a difference aren’t in there.”
Those major items, as Corzine sees them, include raising the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 and imposing a waiting period on gun sales most important, both of which feature in a bill the Florida Senate passed Monday. But most important of all, Corzine says, is instituting universal background checks on gun purchases, which would help to close the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows interested parties to buy firearms from unlicensed or private vendors without submitting to a background check first.
“For any legislation to be effective, it does have to put some obstacles in the way of simply allowing someone to purchase a gun ... with only a federal background check,” he noted.
So far, Congress has waffled over universal background checks, instead targeting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as a candidate for improvement. The Senate proposed a second gun-related measure on Monday that would make the federal government alert state authorities when someone tries to buy a gun but fails to pass a background check, while the FixNICS Act has also received scrutiny. That legislation would obligate state and federal authorities to report criminal histories to the NCIS, but on its own, critics like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say FixNICS doesn’t go far enough. As long as avenues exist for people to buy guns without going through NICS at all, we still have a problem.
Corzine suspects that two factors might contribute to the Senate’s proposal of toothless bills: On the one hand, the National Rifle Association maintains a stifling financial grip on Capitol Hill, mostly — but not exclusively — with respect to Republican lawmakers. The NRA does not support universal background checks, is against raising the legal age for gun purchases, and has opposed extended waiting periods, and politicians who rely on the NRA for funding could reasonably expect some problems if they helped make any of those concepts law.
Complicating things further, President Donald Trump has not been exactly clear about what he wants from Congress, which is especially confusing for members of his own party. Last week, he evinced emphatic support for comprehensive gun control measures — even at the expensive of due process — in a bipartisan meeting. The following evening, however, he met with the NRA and appeared to do a 180: afterwards, a spokesperson reported that the president doesn’t want gun control. The White House has not clarified his stance, making it difficult for lawmakers to discern what kind of bill they could put in front of him that he might actually sign.
And so here we are, sitting with a piece of well-meaning legislation that does satisfy national needs. It has the support of anti-gun violence organization Sandy Hook promise, but as Democratic co-sponsor Chris Murphy put it to USA Today, the bill won’t work if it doesn’t tackle the entire problem: “If we are going to do something meaningful about school shootings, we need to support programs that work, but also address how easy it is for kids to get their hands on powerful weapons.”