Movement toward rational U.S. gun laws, at last

Last week brought news we have been awaiting for far too long.

President Trump and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who rarely see eye to eye on any issue you could name, had a conversation early in the week about requiring universal criminal background checks as a condition of purchasing a gun. The Connecticut Democrat is one of the authors of a bill that would require checks such as those mandated by Connecticut law. But like other bills not favored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it has not moved through the Senate.

The president has indicated he wants to see background checks legislation taken up when the Senate returns in September.

Fox News last week released a telephone poll conducted Aug. 11-13, in the aftermath of weekend mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, finding that 90 percent of those responding support background checks. Eighty-one percent favor "red flag" laws that would allow police to confiscate guns in the possession of a person shown to be a danger to themselves or others.

Even more dramatic, the poll found that two-thirds of those polled support a ban on assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons — a law the country has been without since 2004, when Congress allowed the lapse of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994. Support is up from 60 percent in the same poll in March 2018 and 51 percent in March 2013.

But there's more. Last week Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called for a national debate on whether the ban "would be effective in keeping weapons out of the hands of mass murderers." Walmart is being pressured to stop selling guns and ammunition. Ironically, two recent shootings, the bloodbath in El Paso and one in Mississipi, happened at Walmart locations.

McMillon is self-serving — he issued the call in prepared remarks to stock analysts along with Walmart's quarterly earnings report — but the genie is out of the bottle. A national debate was already underway, with increasing calls for renewing the ban. If it results in clear public will for  background checks, red flags, a ban, or all three, as the Fox poll seems to show, Walmart can shelter behind the notion that it is doing what its customers want.

After all, that's what many members of Congress and President Trump himself, who have accepted the support of the NRA, have been doing: supporting the position of that specific constituency and calling it the will of the people.

Last week's developments nonetheless indicate that at last there is some movement toward federal protections that The Day has advocated for years, and that are similar to Connecticut law passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings in 2012. The Connecticut statute has stood up constitutionally and has been a model for other proposals.

While the signs are that this time the debate might actually produce some reform, there is always the danger of failing to act when the time is right. In March The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would create a federal background check applicable to virtually all sales, but the Senate has neither taken up that version nor acted on its own. Similarly, a bill banning assault weapons, introduced in January, has not gotten beyond committee. 

The people who died in El Paso and Dayton and all other victims of gun violence in the first half of this year were alive for months after those bills were filed. It has finally dawned on more people that this won't stop any other way. If what it takes to confer political courage on certain members of the Senate and the House is the spectre of defying the wishes of large majorities of voters, than the moment has arrived.

Start immediately with background checks; they will catch and thwart some self-glorifying misfits who plan to come out guns blazing. But the ultimate goal must remain the outlawing of semi-automatic assault style rifles and large-capacity magazines.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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