The message given to Congress couldn’t be more clear as its members head back to Washington this week, nor could the solution be more difficult.
It is time to enact stronger conditions for the ownership of all firearms, to initiate tougher background checks and to explore red flag laws. The simple truth is gun violence cannot be addressed without addressing the ease in which someone can arm himself with powerful weaponry.
We say this with the realization that such actions are not fool-proof, and there is no magical thing that will keep a sick mind from going on a killing spree. We also realize whatever action Congress takes must be done without trampling on the constitutional rights of citizens.
But no longer can political leaders sit back and do nothing as mass shootings bring fear into the core of our communities.
A good start would be to follow the lead of Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who has been a former county prosecutor, state lawmaker and attorney general, and U.S. senator. In the wake of the Dayton shooting that killed nine people a month ago, DeWine has proposed requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales and allowing courts to restrict firearms access for people perceived as threats. He maintains too much information is missing from state and federal checks, calling it a “safety issue.” On Wednesday, he pushed for Ohio to start requiring the entry of certain protection orders and arrest warrants for top-tier, violent crimes into its background checks.
Still, more can be done.
We fully respect the Second Amendment, which protects an individual’s right to own guns; that guns are needed for self-defense from threats ranging from local criminals to foreign invaders; and that gun ownership deters crime rather than causes more crime.
However, like most rights, those secured by the Second Amendment are not unlimited. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess firearms, nor are the mentally ill. Businesses and schools can forbid someone from carrying a weapon inside. We maintain military-style assault weapons are inappropriate for civilian use. In effect, they turn potential killers into killing machines. In Dayton, 26 people were shot in 32 seconds.
We’re living in an era where assault rifles are welcomed into the homes of people with troubled minds. Federal law banned military-style semiautomatic rifles and pistols with high-capacity ammunition magazines back in 1994, only to see Congress allow the law to expire 10 years later after a study found inconclusive evidence of its effectiveness. Since then, too many legally purchased weapons have been involved in the deadliest mass shootings, including Dayton, El Paso, the Las Vegas concert massacre and the Parkland High School shooting.
Tougher background checks are supported by 82 percent of gun owners, according to a national Public Policy poll survey. What’s needed is for uniform background checks to be required on all gun sales — not just in brick-and-mortar stores, but even with private sales between gun owners and buyers.
That includes Internet sales and gun shows. Since Congress passed the federal background check law 25 years ago, the Internet has emerged as a massive marketplace where hundreds of thousands of online ads are posted each year by unlicensed sellers. Sellers who don’t live up to this requirement should face harsh fines.
The current background checks on purchasing firearms look at your past, to be certain you’re not a previous dangerous offender who shouldn’t have a gun. We urge Congress to look into adding a brief mental health evaluation into these checks. Low-cost and even free options are available online that could identify purchasers who might not be in a good mental state to buy firearms.
Law-abiding gun owners should be willing to submit to a 15- to 20-minute assessment, with a trained professional evaluating it, similar to how sheriffs already evaluate who should and shouldn’t be allowed concealed carry permits in Ohio. It’s equally important to have an appeals process in place if someone feels their right to purchase a firearm was unjustly withheld.
Red flag laws
Red flag laws, meanwhile, authorize courts to issue a protection order that allows police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or to others. Often, the request for the order comes from relatives or friends concerned about a loved one who owns guns and has expressed suicidal thoughts or discussed shooting people.
It’s difficult to quantify the effectiveness of red flag laws because no one knows for certain the number of killings that are prevented. Officials in several states, however, do say that when mass shootings make headlines, they see more requests for the removal of guns from unstable people.
The worry about red flag laws is they can go too far in allowing courts to confiscate guns from people who have not committed a crime. They also can strip the right to due process of law from those people. Given that, any enactment of such laws should include stiff penalties for people making frivolous claims.
Addressing possible gun control laws is not a knee-jerk reaction. It’s about ensuring responsible gun ownership.
Starting with Columbine, more than 100 mass shootings have taken place while four different presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — held office. The murders have always been followed by intense public debate about what can be done, only to see meaningful action yield to politics.
We cannot let that happen again.
As Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley so eloquently said, “Politics seems very petty when it is your friends and neighbors who are injured or dead.”