Targeting guns does little; target gun criminals instead
Amid the controversy about gun crime and the right to bear arms, it's strange that legislative responses like the ones enacted last week at the federal level are so indirect and tangential.
Not that the new federal law is objectionable. It just doesn't do much more than pay states for their expenses implementing "red flag" laws, encourage them to include juvenile crime records in reports to the federal gun background check database, and increase aid to states for mental health programs and school security.
The new law does not require background checks for the private transfer or sale of guns, nor does it outlaw any type of gun.
While the new law is fairly celebrated for at last winning the support of enough Republicans in the Senate to evade a filibuster, it seems to have no application to the circumstances of the recent mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde, the atrocities that prompted the legislation. It may save a few lives but probably not the "thousands" imagined by its supporters, including one of its architects, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy.
The new law is just the most that is politically possible at the moment. Its supporters should be credited for that, but the law addresses political necessity more than public safety — the necessity for the federal government to be seen to "do something" even if nothing terribly relevant and effective. But at least members of Congress and President Biden now can say they have done as much as they could, and they can come back for more, like comprehensive background checks, as political circumstances change — maybe with the next few mass murders.
While mass murders with "assault rifles" get most of the attention, they are not the big part of the country's gun crime problem. Handguns are. In Chicago alone in a typical two weeks more people are killed by handguns than were killed in the massacres in Buffalo or Uvalde.
Last week in Hartford two people were shot to death and a third seriously wounded by a handgun in what police say was an argument over a dog. The mass murder in Manchester in 2010 was committed with a handgun.
Nationally and in Connecticut much of this handgun crime produces the biggest cliché in both criminal justice and news reporting about it: "long criminal record."
That is, most serious crimes are committed not by first offenders but by people who already have been in trouble with the law many times but have not been deterred or rehabilitated by their plea bargains, sentences, probations, paroles, and encounters with social work.
This month in California a man with a long criminal record was charged in the murder of two police officers, his most recent previous offense having been illegal possession of a gun, for which his plea bargain allowed him to avoid jail — and apparently kill the two officers.
Of course since there is far more crime than there are resources to prosecute it, most criminal justice discounts crime to secure a plea and avoid the time and expense of trial.
Meanwhile in the United States there are far more guns in private possession than there are people, and even ardent advocates of imposing more restrictions on guns acknowledge that obtaining a gun illegally will remain relatively easy short of national confiscation, which would require repealing the Second Amendment, which isn't going to happen any time soon.
So instead of futilely targeting the estimated 400 million guns in private possession in the United States, why not target repeat offenders generally and gun offenders particularly?
Why not enact federal and state incorrigibility laws, requiring life sentences after three, five, or even 10 offenses — and, crucially, a mandatory life sentence for a single offense committed with a gun, loaded or unloaded, real or replica?
Such laws would not have had application to the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres any more than the new federal law would have had. They also would cost a lot more money for more serious prosecution and maintenance of a larger prison population.
But such laws might be more relevant than anything yet proposed. Before long their implementation might spread the word that the country at last was as serious about gun crime as it is about the Second Amendment.Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.