Despite compelling testimony by Newtown parent Neil Heslin at a key Senate hearing in Washington, it now appears unlikely that the proposed federal assault weapons ban will gain congressional approval.
That is unfortunate, but it should not derail the effort to reduce gun violence. The ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons, such as the one used to murder Mr. Heslin's son, 19 other children and six female educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, would be a societal statement against mass shootings.
But if an earlier federal ban is an indicator, it would be decades before a new ban by itself would have a measurable effect in reducing gun violence. The assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would ban 157 types of weapons and large-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, but not touch weapons already in the hands of private citizens. Well, there are many millions of them out there, and many more large-capacity magazines.
THE GUN-BAN PROBLEM
Opponents say the federal ban from 1994 to 2004 didn't work well. Then as now, the law didn't reach guns already owned, and there were at least 1.5 million of them. A 2003 study said it was too early to tell whether the ban was reducing gun crimes committed with assault-style weapons. Subsequent research suggested it was beginning to have an effect.
One problem is that a relatively small percentage of gun crimes involve assault-style weapons. Most involve handguns. This is well-known to city leaders. State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a New Haven mayoral candidate, said this past week that gun legislation will fail if it does not address handgun killings in urban centers.
He's right. If Sen. Feinstein and fellow supporters don't have the votes to ban weapons with military characteristics, then they should focus on banning large-capacity magazines, and on instituting universal background checks.
There are several reasons to ban large-capacity magazines: They are used in gun crimes. They would make a gunman stop long enough during reloading that someone may stop him. And criminals shouldn't have more killing capacity than police.
Background checks work, but they are required only in sales by federally licensed gun dealers. A proposed law would require background checks for private sales as well, which may account for up to 40 percent of gun transfers. Getting a law requiring universal background checks would at least allow lawmakers to look Neil Heslin in the eye.
The background check system would be stronger if all states fully participated — some haven't submitted data — and gun owners had to re-register periodically to make sure they were still eligible and still had the guns they registered. That would be a way to track stolen weapons, so police can get them out of the hands of criminals.
Though there is overwhelming public support for background checks, some Republicans say requiring sellers to retain records of sales could kill the bill. This is curious: Licensed gun dealers are required keep records now. The hand of the National Rifle Association again?
On the state level, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed universal background checks, plus bans of assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, as part of a program to strengthen state gun laws. CT Against Gun Violence, a coalition of 50 groups including Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and the Connecticut Psychological Association, proposes a limit on handgun purchases to one a month. That's 12 guns a year. Why would anyone, besides the armorer of the Crips or the Bloods, have a problem with that?
The issue doesn't go away, as was made painfully clear this past week when a North Stonington woman with a mental disorder shot her grandsons and herself. To identify and help such people, and keep them away from guns, remains a large part of the challenge. That, too, must be addressed.Copyright © 2015, CT Now