UC Santa Barbara and the Long Road to Gun Safety

The grief and fury were raw when Richard Martinez stepped to the microphone: “When will this insanity stop?” he shouted. “When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness!’”?

Such heartbreaking bewilderment and rage from a father who had just lost his son in the mass shooting at UC Santa Barbara was all too familiar to me. As an advisor to the group Sandy Hook Promise, I was asked the same questions by some of the families of Newtown after the murders of their children. How was it possible, after Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora and Tucson, that a madman was able to arm himself and commit these atrocities? Why, in the face of 30 gun murders every day in the United States, isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

Those are very fair questions. Congress has not passed a major piece of gun safety legislation since 1994, five years before Columbine. In the meantime, we have seen more than 600,000 gun deaths, including about 200,000 murders. To put those numbers into perspective, just over 6,700 American troops have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That’s an appalling figure, but it’s about 1/50th of the domestic toll that guns have taken since we went to war in 2003.

Why, then, have we seen so little progress? Why, even after the slaughter of 26 innocents in a Connecticut elementary school, did Congress fail to act?

Mr. Martinez offered one answer: “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA.” And he’s not wrong. Those forces did combine to sink bipartisan, responsible, and important gun safety legislation that Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced in the wake of Sandy Hook. The Manchin-Toomey bill would close the gaping loopholes in the Brady Act that allow criminals and the mentally ill to evade background checks by buying guns online and at gun shows.

There was, in fact, no rational basis to oppose the Manchin-Toomey bill. It includes powerful provisions to ensure that 2nd Amendment rights are protected for law-abiding gun owners and sellers. It targets only those who seek to evade background checks and transfer guns to those who should not have them. It is overwhelmingly popular; approval ratings for the measure are well over 70%, even in staunch gun rights states. Yet the bill failed, in large part because of the power of the NRA and the failure of will by Senators who should have known better.

As the families of Sandy Hook Promise soon discovered, the substance and politics of the gun issue can be devilishly complex. In the cases of both Santa Barbara and Sandy Hook, for example, even if the Manchin-Toomey bill were law it would not have prevented the murders. Indeed, nothing Congress has contemplated in the modern era would have stopped Elliot Rodger and Adam Lanza from obtaining the guns the way they did. (Rodger bought them legally after clearing background checks; Lanza stole them from his mother, who owned them lawfully.)

So by all means, blame the politicians and the interest groups that are preventing progress on an enormous national problem. But also recognize—as Sandy Hook Promise leaders like Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden came to—that the right response to these horrific events may not be to target precisely the circumstances of their own personal tragedy. It may be that nothing Congress can reasonably do would stop some suicidal mass murderers. Rather, the best course may be to work to pass legislation like Manchin-Toomey, which addresses the underlying problems in the system that would help, slowly but surely, to stem the violence.

To learn more about the history of the NRA and Sandy Hook Promise’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the Manchin-Toomey amendment, read Matt Bennett’s Brookings Essay, The Promise: The Families of Sandy Hook and the Long Road to Gun Safety.