A Deadly Weekend in America Renews Attention to Congress' Languishing Gun-Control Bills

Even President Donald Trump tweeted his support for stronger background checks on gun purchases.
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A photo of Elsa Mendoza Marquez, a Mexican schoolteacher who was the mother of two adult children, is displayed at an interfaith vigil for victims of a mass shooting, which left at least 20 people dead, including Marquez, on August 4th, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. At least 26 people were wounded.

A photo of Elsa Mendoza Marquez, a Mexican schoolteacher who was the mother of two adult children, is displayed at an interfaith vigil for victims of a mass shooting, which left at least 20 people dead, including Marquez, on August 4th, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. At least 26 people were wounded.

Separate gunmen in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed a total of 29 people this weekend, and injured dozens more. The El Paso slayings, especially, have drawn attention because the shooter allegedly posted an anti-Hispanic, racist screed online immediately before the shooting. In the aftermath of the two tragedies, lawmakers and President Donald Trump have discussed the importance of background checks and so-called "red-flag" laws. Yet there are already two such bills aimed at reducing gun violence. Both are currently languishing in Congress.

On Sunday, Senate Democrats called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to bring a federal gun-control law to vote. The law would require background checks on everyone who buys a gun in America, even if they get the firearm from a private seller. On Monday, Trump also expressed his support for expanded background checks for firearm purchases, even while stressing the need for "immigration reform":

The specific law that the Democratic senators are thinking of is the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019. It closes a well-known loophole in the existing federal background checks law, which allows unlicensed sellers—such as people at gun shows—to sell firearms without running a background check on their buyers. At a House of Representatives hearing for the act this past February, supporters of the legislation showed up in force, many of them survivors of mass shootings like the ones in El Paso and Dayton. Even many of the Republicans on the committee were gentle in their dissent. The feeling in the room seemed to reflect the reality that numerous polls indicate large majorities of Americans supporting background checks on all firearms purchases.

"The failure of Congress to pass universal background check legislation has eroded our sense of safety on the streets, in our schools, and even in our places of worship," Representative Henry Johnson (D-Georgia) said during the February hearing.

The act passed the Democratic-controlled House soon after that hearing, with eight Republicans joining nearly all House Democrats in voting yes. Since then, however, the act hasn't gone anywhere in the Senate because McConnell has refused to refer it to committee, USA Today reports.

How well would stronger background checks work to prevent killings? As I reported in February:

As for whether a universal background check law would reduce gun crimes, that's harder to answer with research. The federal background check law hasn't fared well in studies, but it has such large loopholes, scientists say it's not a good indication of whether a more airtight law would work. Several studies suggest that combinations of gun-control laws, usually including a background check law, seem to work best in reducing gun crimes.

Trump spoke at greater length to Americans about the El Paso and Dayton shootings later on Monday morning, though his speech didn't mention background checks. Instead, he talked about extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), which let concerned friends, family, and/or law enforcement temporarily remove guns from someone's possession if they seem like a danger to themselves or others—for example, if they've made threats or suicidal remarks recently.

There is a federal bill about extreme risk protection orders too, though it doesn't appear to be going anywhere. The legislation would create incentives for states to enact ERPOs. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have extreme risk laws, according to the Giffords Law Center. There's less evidence about these laws' effectiveness because they're newer and rarer than other gun policies, like background check laws, as I reported in March. But they have the benefit of enjoying surprising bipartisan support, as I found from attending a hearing about them that same month. Even so, some Republicans at the hearing had objections. The Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019, introduced in the Senate, has not advanced since.

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