The Breaking Point on Gun Control

Katherine Skipper | March 19, 2018
Image by Lorie Shaull, CC-BY 2.0 License

The response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead, is markedly different from that of similar tragedies in recent memory. Many credit the survivors of the attack with creating a proper sense of urgency to work against having to revisit this issue as often as we do in the United States. Whatever its source, there is mounting momentum toward changing existing gun laws, leading to a fissure in Republicans’ typical resolve on the issue.

Rick Scott’s track record includes signing more pro-gun bills than any other governor in Florida’s history. Last month, he came out in support of raising the minimum age for the purchase of all firearms from 18 to 21, as well as banning bump stocks, which are devices that turn semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic ones. The state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a historic bill on March 7th that includes these restrictions, as well as a three-day waiting period for the purchase of rifles and shotguns, and a provision that would make it easier for law enforcement to confiscate weapons from individuals who are believed to pose a threat to themselves or others. Though he disagreed with a provision that would allow some school employees to be armed, Gov. Scott applauded that the bill funds new mental health programs and signed it into law on March 9th. The bipartisan legislation imposes the first gun control measures in the state in over two decades.

While Florida has made history with these restrictions, Congress has failed to make similar progress. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which left 26 dead, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey co-sponsored a bill that would expand federal criminal and mental background checks for firearm purchases. Though the bill was rejected by the Senate five years ago, the senators are considering reviving it, confident that it will have President Trump’s support. Related legislation, known as the Fix NICS bill, was drafted by Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy after a 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas left 26 dead. Like in Parkland, the Texas shooting was marked by a colossal failure to carry out existing policies aimed at preventing firearms from getting into the wrong hands. The Fix NICS bill attempts to address this problem by financially incentivizing state and federal agencies to report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The proposal has faced pushback from Democrats who say it doesn’t go far enough, and the President seems to agree. Trump suggests a merger of these two bills, adding that other provisions may be included to create a comprehensive piece of legislation.

While many consider his statements to be a betrayal of the President’s commitment to protect Second Amendment rights, Trump’s sense of urgency is reflective of that of his constituents. Recent polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support stricter gun laws, with 97% in favor of universal background checks for all gun purchases. What would seem like common ground has not yet translated into legislation, and Republicans’ reluctance to pass comprehensive legislation threatens to keep the number of successful gun control bills since Sandy Hook at zero. Democrats are hopeful that the current momentum following the Parkland shooting will sway their Republican colleagues in Congress, but the division among Democrats concerning the extent of firearm restrictions illustrates the need for compromise, of which there has been very little when it comes to gun control.

Despite Congress’s apparent intent to keep kicking this can down the road, there is evidence that Parkland may very well be remembered as a breaking point in the debate regarding Second Amendment rights. Hundreds of thousands are expected to participate in the March for Our Lives on March 24th. The mission statement for the event reads: “We support the right of law-abiding Americans to keep and bear arms, as set forth in the United States Constitution. But with that right comes responsibility.” Supporters of the march seek to close the loopholes in the current background check system, ban assault weapons, and prohibit high-capacity magazines. The coming weeks will determine whether the aftermath of this tragedy is different from the others, and whether our lawmakers can come together in an effort to prevent these murders from becoming the norm.