How Democrats cynically abandoned all principle on guns
The horrific shooting in Orlando, Florida, has solidified the emerging consensus that the Democratic Party needs to make gun control a major part of its political platform. Most recently, this took the form of a filibuster by Senate Democrats, led by Connecticut's Christopher Murphy, to force a vote on expanding the background check system and creating a new watch list that would allow the attorney general to halt gun sales to anyone who has been the subject of a terrorism investigation.
Democrats will almost certainly lose these votes, but they are still important in what they signal about the developing Democratic thinking on gun policy — and the results are not encouraging. The background check expansion is fine (if fairly small beer), but the creation of yet another extremely broad terrorist watch list indicates a disturbing willingness to throw principle and quality policy over the side in favor of posturing and symbolism.
Greg Sargent spoke with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose office provided the details of the new gun watch list:
This new proposal doesn’t actually have anything to do with any currently existing "Terrorist Watchlist," Feinstein’s office says, despite widespread reporting to the contrary. Rather, anyone who has been targeted by a federal terror probe in the past five years would be marked as someone who raises a red flag when he or she tries to buy a gun. At that point, the attorney general would have the power to block it, a decision that would presumably be based on what the FBI knew about that person. [Washington Post]
Any attorney general would almost certainly use this as a blanket ban to prevent anyone who comes under federal scrutiny from buying a gun, as Kevin Drum argues. The potential uproar if someone were to be cleared to buy a gun after FBI scrutiny and then go on to commit a mass shooting would be far too huge to risk. A five-year ban on anyone who is merely suspected of being involved in terrorism is an egregious violation of due process and constitutional rights — and it goes without saying that the people targeted by these investigations will be largely Muslims.
So if this idea is bad, what is better?
It's best to start with a nuanced understanding of the history and politics of gun policy, which Patrick Blanchfield does in a long article in n+1. It provides excellent context for this debate. He notes that America already has a dizzying variety of gun control regulations in different states, and that gun manufacturers have moved to profit under every regulatory regime, and by the inevitable frenzy of hoarding after every Democratic noise about gun policy.
In addition, America is already so awash in guns — with nearly half the civilian-owned guns in the entire world — that it would make confiscatory policies like those tried in Australia and elsewhere extremely expensive and a huge logistical challenge, in addition to being politically and legally impossible through the medium term at least.
Basically, gun violence is a massive problem with many, many facets. Spree killings, while extremely horrifying, are only a tiny fraction of the whole. What is needed is a focus on harm reduction strategies along every front — and not just gun policy itself. This includes improving access to medical treatment, particularly in urban areas with a lot of violence and no nearby trauma centers; general anti-crime policy such as diplomatic intervention between rival gangs; a restoration of funding for federal gun violence research; as well as traditional gun control like universal background checks, targeted gun buybacks, and so on.
But at least at this stage, Democrats are embracing a largely symbolic approach focused on spree killings and based on the premises of the wars on crime and terror. As Blanchfield argues:
When it comes to gun control, many nominal "progressives" will express a remarkably candid willingness to suspend concerns about ideological principles in favor of "action." In the aftermath of any high-profile massacre, commentators and interest groups propose a litany of measures that few on the left would tolerate for tackling other social problems (with the salient exception of international terrorism). [n+1]
Dozens of people being gunned down in cold blood is so horrifying that it can blot out other concerns. But making policy in a fever can often backfire badly. America is only just now beginning to slowly scale back the world's largest system of mass incarceration, built on anti-crime policy made without careful attention. Democrats must not be blind to the dangers of empowering a structurally racist police and anti-terrorism apparatus.