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Yesterday I began to see the tweets, again: people who had left their houses that day to do something unremarkable were dying. Friends at the University of Colorado-Boulder expressed fear, horror, and confusion as another mass shooting unfolded at a supermarket near their campus. Later, I learned that ten people, including a police officer responding to the emergency, were dead. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, who purchased a Ruger AR-556 on March 16, has been taken into custody.
It was less than a week since I had seen similar tweets from Atlanta, where a 21-year-old emptied a weapon purchased just that day into massage parlors owned and operated by Asian women, killing six of them and two white customers. Police took Robert Aaron Long into custody before he reached Florida, where he planned to kill more women.
And these are only the shootings that made the national news in the last week. According to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, an average of 316 people are shot every day in the United States. A third of them die: of that number, 39 are deliberately murdered, and a shocking 64 are suicides. An average of one person each day is killed unintentionally with a gun; one is shot and killed by an officer of the law.
We have done nothing about this for almost thirty years except devise new ways to get ever-more weapons to ever-more people. In 2013, the average gun-owning household had eight weapons; so-called “super-owners” had 17. Today, they have more. Before the 2016 election, a friend in the American Southwest told me that he knew people who were preparing for a Democratic presidency by purchasing burial plots to stockpile semi-automatic weapons and ammunition in coffins.
Gun control used to be possible. In 1994, under the direction of then-Senator Joseph R. Biden, Congress passed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. Called an “assault weapons ban.” The legislation was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is now best known for having irreparably damaged Black communities through mass incarceration.
However, “assault weapon ban” was also a misnomer. Fully automatic weapons were already illegal, and the legislation made only some semi-automatic weapons illegal. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the legislation was that it did ban magazines that held ten or more rounds. At the time, Biden wrote:
Assault weapons — military-style firearms designed to fire rapidly — are a threat to our national security, and we should treat them as such. Anyone who pretends there’s nothing we can do is lying — and holding that view should be disqualifying for anyone seeking to lead our country.
Anyone who pretends there’s nothing we can do is lying.
But there was a catch. The bill barely passed the Senate with 52 votes. The sponsors won the two votes they needed by making deals with the Devil: anyone who already owned a banned weapon could legally keep it, and the Democratic sponsors accepted a 10-year “sunset” provision. This meant that the ban had to be renewed in 2004.
And of course, it wasn’t. By then, the Democrats were no longer in charge of Congress or the presidency, and the National Rifle Association was. In 2012, a gunman murdered his mother, killed 20 children under the age of seven and six of their teachers at a Sandy Hook primary school with a legally purchased Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle and a Glock 20SF handgun, then turned the gun on himself. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had sponsored the 1994 bill, brought an assault weapons bill to the floor again after this horrific tragedy, and it received only 40 votes.
This dispiriting experience, the subsequent embrace by the right of a conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” operation, and Republican domination of one or both chambers since then, pretty much killed gun control for almost a decade.
But there’s a new sheriff in town, three of them, to be precise: Pelosi, Schumer and Biden. With Republican co-sponsors, the House has passed two bills that strengthen background checks and close the “Charleston Loophole,” so-called because it put a weapon in the hands of white supremacist Dylann Roof, which automatically approves a gun sale if the NCIS does not respond in three days.
On Tuesday, President Biden promised to act. He told the nation that he was “devastated” by these mass shootings, and would say very little until he “had all the facts.” But, he continued, “I do know this: As President, I can use all the resources at my disposal to keep the American people safe….Less than a week after the horrific murders of eight people and the assault on the AAPI community in Georgia, while the flag was still flying half-staff for the tragedy, another American city has been scarred by gun violence and the resulting trauma.”
And he’s not just offering thoughts, prayers and a misreading of the Constitution as Republicans do. Biden continued:
I want to be very clear — this is the one thing I do know enough to say on it, in terms of what’s happened there: While we’re still waiting for more information regarding the shooter; his motive; the weapons he used — the guns, the magazines, the weapons, and the modifications that apparently have taken place to those weapons that are involved here — I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.
We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was law for the longest time, and it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.
We can close the loopholes in our background check system, including the “Charleston loophole.” That’s one of the best tools we have right now to prevent gun violence. The Senate should immediately pass—let me say it again: The United States Senate — I hope some are listening—should immediately pass the two House-passed bills that close loopholes in the background check system. These are bills that received votes of both Republicans and Democrats in the House. This is not and should not be a partisan issue; this is an American issue. It will save lives — American lives — and we have to act. We should also ban assault weapons in the process.
Because anyone who pretends there’s nothing we can do is lying.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This post originally appeared on her Substack, where you can also find suggestions for things you can do to fight gun violence.