Will Congress ever do the right thing?

Just a couple of weeks ago this editorial space welcomed the introduction of the “Background Check Expansion Act” by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and another 28 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including the state’s other U.S. senator, Richard Blumenthal.

How distressing that in such a short passage of time the nation has endured yet another mass fatality shooting. This time the victims were congregants attending Sunday services at the First Baptist Church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Twenty-six people were shot to death, many of them children, the fatalities ranging from a toddler to a 77-year-old. Among the adult victims was a pregnant woman. The shooter's bullets wounded another 20 people.

These mass murders are now arriving with troubling rapidity, the space between events shortening. Yet nothing changes, at least at the federal level. It is hard to imagine such inaction if any other repeat events were causing mass casualties — be it airplane crashes, a health epidemic or building collapses.

In justifying their inaction, those in Washington who are beholden to the gun lobby say it is mental illness that is to blame (as if a deranged man with a knife or even a handgun could have caused such carnage) or contend that no law could prevent all such killings, an empty argument once used to avoid mandated seat belts and airbags in motor vehicles.

In Connecticut, at least, our elected leaders responded in the wake of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Killed in the 2012 shooting were 20 first-grade students, six adult educators and the mother of the shooter.

Led by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the legislature outlawed the sale of semiautomatic rifles and large-capacity magazines, stiffened background checks for obtaining a permit and required that individuals facing restraining orders for suspected domestic violence surrender their firearms.

Texas church gunman Devin Kelley, 26, who shot himself after his rampage, would not have been able purchase in Connecticut the Rugar AR-556, a variant of the AR-15 military assault weapon, that he used in the killings. Unfortunately, states such as Connecticut that have banned the sale of these weapons face the reality they can be purchased elsewhere and transported here.

That would not be the case had Congress renewed the federal assault weapons ban it passed in 1994, a ban that would have included the assault rifle used by Kelley. Responding to pressure from the powerful gun lobby, Congress let the ban expire in 2004.

While the Second Amendment provides the constitutional right to possess firearms for protection and hunting, the courts have acknowledged that this right is not limitless. The primary framework of Connecticut’s law, for instance, stood up to constitutional challenges.

In setting limits, Congress should again ban semiautomatic assault weapons that are designed for the express purpose of making it easy to kill many people quickly. In a Texas church on Sunday the effectiveness of these weapons to do just that was again demonstrated.

Unfortunately, the politics of the day do not provide a path to this reasonable step.

In the interim, however, there is the opportunity for small steps if the public demands it.

After a shooter murdered 58 people at a Las Vegas concert on Oct. 1, even some ardent Second Amendment defenders in Congress expressed a willingness to outlaw bump stocks, designed to allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire like an outlawed machine gun. But the Republican leadership in the House and Senate have stalled the legislation.

Murphy’s bill would require universal federal background checks, ending the loophole that allows unlicensed or private sellers, including at gun shows and through internet purchases, to transfer a firearm without requiring the buyer to undergo a background check. This reasonable reform also seems destined to go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Kelley should certainly have not been able to purchase the assault rifle. He served briefly in the Air Force at a New Mexico Base, only to end up receiving a year in confinement after earning a bad conduct discharge for assaulting his wife and child.

Given that background, how Kelley was able to purchase the AR-556 from a store in San Antonio in April 2016 is a matter investigators are looking into. “By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

If that investigation demonstrates a flaw in the background check law, or the execution of that law, would Republicans such as Abbott show the courage to back necessary reforms?

Unfortunately, their record isn’t good.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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