When President Biden signed the most sweeping gun bill in decades on Saturday, he said “lives will be saved.”
But will they? Really? Or is this another ceremony necessitated by politics and the urge to “do something?” We hope the former, but we fear the latter.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is supposed to toughen background checks for the youngest gun buyers; keep firearms from more domestic violence offenders; and help states put in place red-flag laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people judged to be dangerous. Most of its $13 billion cost will help bolster mental health programs and aid schools.
The federal legislation comes after decades of deadly mass shootings that have sparked reassessments of the role of the Second Amendment in 21st-century America.
There was some promising bipartisanship in passage of the legislation. Fifteen Republican senators voted in support of the final bill. Our own U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, deserves credit for helping hammer out the bipartisan compromise after weeks of closed-door talks. Still, all 34 “nay” votes in the 65-34 Senate roll call were cast by Republicans. In the House, the only Republican in N.M.’s congressional delegation, Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo, voted against the measure.
The president called the legislation “a historic achievement.” But beyond getting something passed, is it?
The act expands background checks for prospective gun buyers aged between 18 and 21, but does not require them for all firearm transactions. It also does not impose longer waiting periods for most purchases so authorities have sufficient time to conduct background checks.
It does close the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” Federal law already prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun, but it applied only to people who are married to, living with, or have a child with, the victim. Yet, as any law enforcement officer or prosecutor will tell you, folks with a criminal record don’t buy their guns from reputable establishments and, by the time they know an abuser has a gun, it’s too often too late.
It provides incentives for states to create red-flag laws, but does not establish a federal one. New Mexico’s Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act — a red-flag law — has been used only rarely since approval in 2020. The law that allows firearms to be temporarily taken away from those deemed a danger to themselves or others has resulted in just nine petitions in two years, only five of which resulted in one-year orders being approved. That’s hardly a dent since its passage, when many New Mexico sheriffs vowed not to enforce it.
It gives states more funding for school safety and mental health resources, but how will that money be used in a data-driven, results-oriented manner? We do not need more government spending to little effect.
And it does not address the role assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines have played in mass shootings, nor even raise the age to 21 to possess one. You can’t buy alcohol, but an AR-15? Sure! And forget any requirements on responsible gun storage.
The U.S. is the most heavily armed civilian population in the world — by far — with more than 393 million weapons in a country of fewer than 333 million people. Guns are a part of our culture, especially Western culture, and the right to keep and bear arms is woven into our state and federal constitutions. The challenge in reconciling that with unacceptable gun violence (Albuquerque is on another record-setting pace for homicides, at more than 60 so far this year after a record-setting 117 homicides within city limits last year) is why we get press conferences with politicians claiming they “did something,” no matter how ineffectual that something may be.
We hope our lawmakers prove us wrong and can soon list numerous cases in which the act saved lives and kept guns out of the wrong hands, while finally addressing the underlying mental health issues that lead to gun violence. But we aren’t betting on it.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.