Gun Violence they aren't talking about in Washington

The Gun Debate Washington Isn’t Having

WASHINGTON — Democrats may control the levers of power in the nation’s capital, but Republicans control the nation’s gun laws.

Nothing seems to change those dynamics. Not a Democrat in the White House. Not a Democratic speaker of the House. And surely not a Democratic majority leader in a sharply divided Senate. These new, if old, dynamics continue to leave the lowest of low-hanging fruit rotting on the Capitol’s marble floors as senators wrap up their work before embarking on their month-long August recess.

Democrats surely have tried.

After two horrific mass shootings earlier this year — one at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo. which left 10 dead; the other across three spas in metro Atlanta where eight lives, including six Asian sex workers who were targeted, were lost — the debate on Capitol Hill remains just about the same: House Democrats passed sweeping reform measures, Senate Democrats vowed to pass something; they failed and now Democrats are vowing to cobble together.  

“It’s not a simple issue, but to me, this should be a no-brainer. And thank God we’ve finally got a Justice Department that recognizes the seriousness of it.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)

All this while big city mayors face — and families endure — sustained spikes in homicides across America, and federal lawmakers continue their longshot effort to overhaul the nation’s police departments. Those competing trends — the demand for police reform coupled with a surging homicide rate — have all but derailed any meaningful debate about gun-control in this Congress.

Still, some 84% of American voters — which includes 77% of Republican voters — tell pollsters they want increased background checks on gun purchases.

When Senate talks fizzled back in June, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) — the lead Democratic negotiator on the issue this time around — explicitly chalked the failure up to background checks, which is seemingly the most bipartisan component of the entire debate.  

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“We haven’t been able to get to a bill that would meaningfully increase the number of gun sales that require background checks,” Murphy explained in his June statement.

Even while announcing defeat, Murphy vowed to continue the battle.

“The good news is that I’m still talking with other Republican colleagues about different proposals to expand background checks,” the senator added, “and I’m committed to getting something done.”

Recently the Council on Criminal Justice — a non-partisan think tank — reported a troubling 16% spike in murders in the first half of the year in 22 U.S. cities compared to 2020. When compared to 2019 numbers, it represents an alarming 42% increase.  

“Merchants of death are breaking the law for profit.”

President Joe Biden

Without any effort truly materializing at the Capitol, earlier this year President Joe Biden announced a plan to curb the scourge of homicides plaguing big cities, which included clamping down on gun dealers in states with lax gun laws. Those firearms often end up on the streets of the nation’s largest cities, in spite of the gun-control measures enacted by the more liberal local leaders who run most cities.

Accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, the president unveiled a multi-pronged effort to combat the violence and the steady stream of weapons flowing across America.

“Merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” Biden told those at the White House event, where he also promised a “zero” tolerance policy for gun dealers who buck federal statutes.

The president also tasked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) with conducting a study where they’ll map out weapons trafficked over the past two decades.

While it promises to be the most comprehensive study done in decades by the federal government, the data’s basically already out there. Using available ATF data, earlier this year gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety showed roughly 75% of guns used in crimes were tied to a seller from another state. A full 82% of those weapons flowed from states with no background check requirements for online sales or at events like gun shows.  

The president’s effort to stem the tide of blood flowing down American streets — from L.A. to Chicago — was dismissed out of hand by most Republicans at the Capitol.    

“I think it’s been debunked, but nonetheless, I’m a root cause guy. So let’s focus on root causes,” Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) told The News Station on his way to a Senate vote. “And I also believe that criminals will find ways to get firearms, right? We have more guns in this country than when we have people already, so they will find ways.”

There’s a problem though: It hasn’t been debunked. Rather, it’s been well documented. A few years back, in an effort to curtail the deadly and glaring problem, Chicago mayor’s office tasked the University of Chicago Crime Lab with answering this very question a few years back. 

“At best it’s disingenuous and cowardly to just dismiss the possibility of addressing the scourge of gun violence in impacted communities, especially in cities like Chicago, as just a matter of enforcing the laws that already exist.”

Dan Gross, former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Turns out, contrary to what the senior senator from Indiana contended, besides suburbs west of Chicago with more lax gun laws, Indiana proved the biggest source of illegal firearms recovered at crime scenes in the sprawling metropolis along Lake Michigan. 

It’s neighbor to the west is also expected to join Indiana on the list soon. This spring, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and the legislature did away with background requirements for many sales. Now, if a person chooses not to, they can bypass a background check when purchasing weapons online or from dealers at gun shows. 

Before the law was enacted 60% of guns recovered from Chicago crime scenes were traced back to a tapestry of other conservative states.

While experts are warning Iowa will soon join Indiana as a top source feeding illegal guns to the largest city in the Midwest, its senior senator is hearing none of it — whether documented or not. 

“It’s a problem of not having enough law enforcement in Chicago,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told The News Station while walking through the Capitol. 

Bipartisanship is far from dead. The former chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee does support Biden’s effort to fund more police officers and their equipment through using unspent Coronavirus funds to combat crime

“If you want to cut down on crime, you don’t cut down on guns,” Grassley said. “You make sure that you arrest the people that are committing the crimes, and what you ought to be doing is helping to beef up law enforcement.”  

In recent years the national average for homicides drastically decreased from its previous peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sometimes these guns are then used to kill police officers, like in 2018 when Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer was murdered by a Wisconsin-sold firearm. That’s news to the lead Republican negotiator on the policing reform measure on life support in the Senate.

“No. It’s not a part of the policing talks at all,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told The News Station of the effort to reform the nation’s police forces

“I think you’d have to do a deeper dive and study into where the crime occurs, who’s committing the crime, who are the victims, what do they have in common,” Scott said while standing in the basement of the Capitol awaiting a tram.

Again, those studies are published, coming out regularly and more are slated to drop in the coming months and years. The question is who will read them? Many fear it won’t be the Republicans in Congress needed if any reform measure is to pass. 

“It’s a problem of not having enough law enforcement in Chicago.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

“At best it’s disingenuous and cowardly to just dismiss the possibility of addressing the scourge of gun violence in impacted communities, especially in cities like Chicago, as it’s just a matter of enforcing the laws that already exist,” Dan Gross, the former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told The News Station in a phone call. “Certainly that’s part of the equation. But the reality is, there are things that the ATF has known about that, you know, any educated person in government should know about that can be done beyond that.” 

After leaving the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Gross launched consulting firm Greater Sum Strategies and he co-founded the Center for Gun Rights and Responsibility where he’s now focusing energy and resources on the common ground that remains unscorched in this decades-long and increasingly hyper-partisan national debate. 

Well, there’s a funny thing about this debate. It’s basically a made-for-Washington one. As in, it’s a wedge issue in name only, because only in the U.S. Capitol do you seem to find Republicans opposed to increased background checks on firearm sales. Remember, some three-fourths of GOP voters and the majority of gun owners — no joke, more than 80% of them — want more scrutiny for these sales. But GOP voters and rank-and-file Republicans seem to reside in two Americas: The Swamp and the rest of America that seems to start where the Beltway stops. 

“There’s probably no issue where there’s a bigger disconnect between the American public and Congress,” Gross argues. 

Originally, according to Gross, that was due to the “stranglehold” groups like the NRA held on members of Congress from both parties. Remember, former Representative-turned-Chicago-Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped orchestrate the 2006 takeover of the House. As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he aggressively recruited, coached, cursed out, encouraged and padded the campaign coffers of dozens of pro-gun Dems. It worked and Pelosi flexed her speaker’s gavel for the next four years. 

Just four years later, in 2010’s “tea party” sweep of suburban districts, moderate Democrats were all but on the verge of extinction. Seven years later, new dynamics started emerging in state level politics nationwide. Many were initially awakened by the almost unfathomable carnage left on the Las Vegas Strip, when a gunman mowed down 58 concertgoers, leaving more than 850 injured, many permanently scarred inside and out. 

While school shootings are a uniquely American phenomenon, the grieving, social media-savvy and righteously angry survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre forced a change in the national conversation after they lost 17 of their own. Then, without much fanfare or notice in the nation’s capital, four GOP governors did the previously unthinkable and passed measures to increase public safety over the protests of the NRA. Emboldened, Democrats flipped the script and won control of the House by running Dems who themselves made guns an issue in suburban districts, including many as red as an NRA spokesperson’s face when yelling over an opponent on Fox Newsmax. 

“And I also believe that criminals will find ways to get firearms, right? We have more guns in this country than when we have people already, so they will find ways.”

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN)

Now, the NRA itself is in disarray. With its leaders attacking each other publicly, evading lawsuits and firing hundreds of its workers in recent years, the group — which is arguably more pro-“2nd Amendment” than the 2nd Amendment itself — isn’t even a shadow of its former self. Yet its talking points have become the new gospel to elected Republicans. 

“Over time that morphed into talking points that have seeped into our culture that just, you know, made it easy for those in Congress who are not putting the American public first to continue to do it,” Gross contends. 

Back at the Capitol, it truly feels as if the NRA is still the lobbying giant it once was. But what is reality in today’s Washington anyway? When it comes to guns and the GOP, there’s only one reality and it’s locked and loaded no matter what experts inside or outside the government seem to regularly report on — for example, guns easily flowing from red states to America’s urban hubs. 

“The weapon of choice is probably less important than the actual activity, the location, the aggressor and the victim. I think if you take a look at those, see if there are any patterns within those, figure out what’s going on — that’s what I would say,” Sen. Scott continued. “That’s how I would start it out.”

To belabor the point, those studies abound — even in the neighboring state of where Scott resides about half the year. Just across a string of D.C. bridges, lies Virginia — one of the last purple states left. In the 1990s the state upended its gun laws and limited residents to purchasing one handgun a month. It was that simple. 

“Virginia used to be a great exporter state too before we came up with some better laws,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The News Station at the Capitol. “We had one handgun a month for many years, and it did work. Then Governor [Bob] McDonnell got rid of it, and we went back to being a gun exporter state.”  

In 1996, the Virginia State Crime Commission found that law was effective too, noting “the [ATF] has dropped Virginia from first to eighth on its list of East Coast source states for guns used in criminal activity.”  

The same year, after thoroughly examining the data, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported there was solid “evidence that limiting the purchase of handguns to no more than one per month is an effective means of disrupting the illegal interstate transfer of firearms.”

“The good news is that I’m still talking with other Republican colleagues about different proposals to expand background checks, and I’m committed to getting something done.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT)

That’s why new studies — while still essential — aren’t the solution, in the former governor’s opinion. He wishes his colleagues would read all the reports collecting dust across town.

“It’s kind of sad because sometimes the places that are most, you know, suffering violence are not the places where the guns are coming from. The guns are coming from the next-door neighbor states that have really loose gun laws,” Kaine said just off the Senate floor, “and then that inflicts a lot of damage on, you know, these folks who have better laws, but they’re still victimized by next door neighbor states that don’t.”

Another former Virginia governor — who is counted as one of the few remaining moderate Democrats in Washington — agrees.

“We’re talking about illegal gun transactions under the existing law — where guns are being transported to other states,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told The News Station while walking through the Capitol. “It’s not a simple issue, but to me, this should be a no-brainer. And thank God we’ve finally got a Justice Department that recognizes the seriousness of it.”

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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