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After two mass shootings – one in which 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed – in less than two weeks, pressure is mounting on members of Congress to do something. Anything.
We’ve been here before. After a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, there were similar calls to action. A bipartisan bill to tighten firearms background checks came the closest to passage of any recent gun control legislation. It failed on a vote of 54-46 in the Senate in 2013.
If – and sadly it’s a big if despite the recent tragedies – members of Congress decide to move forward with consideration of legislation to stem America’s tide of gun violence, there are many avenues for them to take.
They range from small steps, such as improving the existing background check system and stopping straw purchases, to sweeping prohibitions on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, depending on their party affiliation and constituency, support differing options.
Independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, for example, have renewed calls for universal background checks. Sen. Susan Collins is focused on laws, commonly called red or yellow flag laws, that allow guns to be taken away from people who are deemed to be a threat to public safety or to themselves. Rep. Jared Golden last year introduced legislation to promote safe gun ownership through grants for firearm safety locks and educational materials.
There are currently two avenues emerging for productive conversations. One is around reconsideration of the 2013 legislation, sponsored by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, to expand background checks to cover more gun sales.
Toomey said he has not given up on the possibility of reviving this legislation. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills to expand background checks. Both face dim prospects in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster.
“I certainly remain committed to the idea of the principle of the policy of expanding background checks to cover all commercial sales,” Toomey told reporters on a call Wednesday afternoon. “I would also point out that even though we fell short, I think it’s the only measure that had bipartisan support — probably the only one, or one of the few, that would have it now.”
Support, though not yet broad, is also building for federal legislation aimed at keeping guns away from dangerous people.
“I understand the prospects for getting the 60 votes are slim; they’re always slim. But there’s a nonzero chance that we could get a compromise, and I began to talk to some of my Republican colleagues about some ideas,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday.
Murphy, who gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Tuesday evening after the Texas elementary school shooting, said he is already working with Toomey and Collins, along with several other senators. They are looking at a broad array of potential legislation, including red flag laws, raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21 and school safety improvements.
As of last fall, 19 states and the District of Columbia had adopted broader “red flag” laws, according to Pew Research, with the majority of those laws being enacted after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 14 students, a teacher, and two coaches dead.
Maine passed a yellow flag law, with bipartisan support, in 2019. The law allows law enforcement to petition the court to seize guns or other weapons if a medical professional determines that a person with a mental health condition poses a significant threat to themselves or others.
The Maine law had been used only 13 times, according to the attorney general’s office, although the data does not include information from this year. Critics of the law have pointed out that it does not ensure people whose weapons were seized would get mental health treatment, something that lawmakers should consider if they are to enact similar legislation at the federal level.
Members of Congress have many options for actions to begin to curb gun violence. What they need to find is the political will to pass some of these proposals into law.