A loophole in federal gun law allowed the gunman in the Las Vegas mass shooting to modify his weapons to perform like machine guns. A lapse in the national instant background-check system allowed the gunman in Sutherland Springs, Texas, to purchase his weapon despite what should have been a disqualifying conviction for domestic violence. Congress has before it sensible solutions to address both problems. Will it enact them this time or, as after other tragedies, fold under the pressure of the gun lobby?
After a gunman in Las Vegas killed 58 people and injured hundreds on Oct. 1 by using bump stocks to spray bullets into a crowd listening to country music, congressional action seemed almost certain. Bipartisan support emerged for legislation to ban the devices, which essentially circumvent laws banning automatic weapons made or imported after 1986. Even the National Rifle Association said the accessories should be subject to regulation. But the momentum for action was short-lived, the NRA’s seeming support was a subterfuge, and Congress has failed to act, saying the matter was better left to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Never mind that agency says it lacks authority under the law to do so.
Some states and cities are trying to fill the gap. Massachusetts this month became the first state to ban bump stocks since the Las Vegas massacre, and several others are considering similar restrictions. “We’ve come to the conclusion that Congress just won’t act on this issue, gun control, so we’ve decided to try to do as much as we can on a state level and on a state-by-state measure,” said Massachusetts state Rep. David Linsky, D.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Dec. 6 on rules regulating firearm accessories, but prospects for action before Congress adjourns are not seen as good. Gun-control advocates are more hopeful about legislation advanced by a bipartisan group of senators that would require federal agencies and states to improve their reporting of criminal offenses and other information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The failure of the Air Force to report the conviction of the gunman in the Sutherland Springs shooting underscored the holes in the system. That Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a fierce opponent of most gun control, is helping lead the effort is seen as boosting its prospects.
Of course, neither of these modest measures would be sufficient to address gun violence. Congress should reimpose the ban on the military-style semiautomatic guns that have - even without bump stocks - become the weapon of choice of mass killers. This week the Supreme Court let stand a Maryland law banning the sale of these weapons. Hopefully that will encourage more states to take similar action while they wait for Congress to do its job.