After Suther­land

Cornyn’s ef­forts at gun leg­is­la­tion have been in vain, but this time seems dif­fer­ent.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

Much has been writ­ten about the re­mark­ably sim­i­lar talk­ing points Repub­li­cans par­rot when­ever the coun­try suf­fers an­other mass mur­der at the hands of a killer wield­ing a semi-au­to­matic as­sault weapon: “thoughts and prayers go to vic­tims,” “not the right time to talk about guns,” “politi­ciz­ing this tragedy is dis­re­spect­ful to the dead.” The state­ments are so con­sis­tent it’s not un­rea­son­able to imag­ine that they are co­or­di­nated by and dis­sem­i­nated from a cen­tral authority — could it be the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion? — in an at­tempt to shield the gun in­dus­try.

The pat­tern was de­press­ingly, pre­dictably re­peated after Devin Kel­ley shot and killed 26 peo­ple at the First Bap­tist Church in Suther­land Springs, with a notably egre­gious re­sponse from At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton, who de­clared that the so­lu­tion to gun vi­o­lence is more guns.

But there was a mod­est break from the Party line by our own U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion that could help pre­vent fu­ture mas­sacres. He pro­poses to strengthen back­ground checks by en­sur­ing that all fed­eral de­part­ments and agen­cies prop­erly trans­fer crim­i­nal records to the FBI’s Na­tional In­stant Crim­i­nal Back­ground Check Sys­tem. Un­der cur­rent law, Kel­ley’s crim­i­nal con­vic­tion while in the Air Force would have pre­vented him from buy­ing a gun, but the records never made it into the sys­tem. “Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, the num­ber of these records that are ac­tu­ally up­loaded is stag­ger­ingly low,” Cornyn said.

Pax­ton, of course, stuck to the party line. “It’s go­ing to hap­pen again,” he opined, “so we need peo­ple in churches — ei­ther pro­fes­sional se­cu­rity or at least arm­ing some of the parish­ioners, or the con­gre­ga­tion, so they can re­spond when some­thing like this hap­pens again.”

Set­ting aside for a mo­ment the sheer cal­lous­ness of blam­ing the vic­tims for the tragedy be­cause they didn’t have the fore­sight to pack heat for their morn­ing wor­ship ser­vice, let’s take a strictly clear-eyed look at what he is propos­ing. An AR-15 ri­fle, fir­ing at least 50 rounds per minute, is ter­ri­fy­ingly loud, like a string of ex­plo­sions go­ing off in very rapid suc­ces­sion. Shell cas­ings are spew­ing forth in all di­rec­tions. Peo­ple are scream­ing, chil­dren are wail­ing, the per­son next to you has been hit and you are cov­ered in her blood. The guy walk­ing down the aisle and killing your neigh­bors is dressed all in black, with a black mask and a bul­let-proof vest.

Now, Mr. AG, as the parish­ioners are try­ing to keep their loved ones from be­ing killed, you are sug­gest­ing that each should dig into a pocket or a purse, ex­tract a pis­tol, re­lease the safety, aim at a mov­ing tar­get and take the mad­man out. Trained po­lice of­fi­cers in New York City achieved a hit rate of about 28 per­cent in a 2006 Firearms Dis­charge Re­port de­scribed in The New York Times, so the like­li­hood of hit­ting an in­no­cent by­stander is far greater than hit­ting the killer.

But the real fal­lacy of fool­ish state­ments like Pax­ton’s is the sim­ple fact that most peo­ple don’t want to shoot an­other hu­man be­ing. We would all like to keep our fam­i­lies safe, but we would pre­fer to do that by pre­vent­ing vi­o­lence be­fore it hap­pens. The per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who own guns has been de­clin­ing, which may ex­plain why the gun in­dus­try doesn’t want any lim­its on the sale of as­sault weapons. These guns are among their most prof­itable prod­ucts.

Sen. Cornyn, who has never seemed com­pletely com­fort­able with the Repub­li­can’s hard­line op­po­si­tion to sen­si­ble gun leg­is­la­tion, has waded into the Sec­ond Amend­ment thicket be­fore. After 49 peo­ple were gunned down in a night­club in Or­lando, Fla., last year, he in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion that would pre­vent any­one on the FBI’s ter­ror­ist watch list from buy­ing a gun; it was voted down by his Repub­li­can col­leagues. In the wake of the coun­try’s dead­li­est mass shoot­ing at an out­door con­cert in Las Ve­gas in Oc­to­ber, he was “open,” at least ten­ta­tively, to leg­is­la­tion that would ban the sale of bump stocks, the at­tach­ment that al­lowed Stephen Pad­dock, who killed and in­jured more than 600 peo­ple in a 10-minute fusil­lade, to con­vert his semi­au­to­matic weapons into the equiv­a­lent of au­to­matic ri­fles. That leg­is­la­tion has stalled.

Cornyn’s ef­forts so far have been in vain, but this time seems dif­fer­ent. If he is suc­cess­ful with this piece of leg­is­la­tion to strengthen back­ground checks, we hope it will en­cour­age him to re­think his mis­guided pro­posal to na­tion­al­ize con­cealed carry laws, mean­ing a per­mit granted in one state would have to be rec­og­nized in all other states. Beyond its bla­tant tram­pling on the authority of each state to de­cide how to pro­tect its own cit­i­zens, it flies in the face of strength­en­ing back­ground checks since the rigor with which states “check” gun own­ers for these per­mits varies wildly. The NRA sup­ports the bill; many law en­force­ment of­fi­cials do not.

This page has long ad­vo­cated re­stric­tions on as­sault weapons, but we will take what we can get, and Cornyn’s pro­pos­als for stronger back­ground checks and pre­vent­ing ter­ror­ists from buy­ing guns aren’t a bad start. Nei­ther of these reg­u­la­tions would im­pede any cit­i­zen from own­ing a gun for sport shoot­ing, hunt­ing or pro­tect­ing home and fam­ily, but they would be far more ef­fec­tive than “thoughts and prayers” at pre­vent­ing the gut-wrench­ing tragedies that have be­come far too com­mon­place in Amer­ica.

The per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans who own guns has been de­clin­ing, which may ex­plain why the gun in­dus­try doesn’t want any lim­its on the sale of as­sault weapons. These guns are among their most prof­itable prod­ucts.

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