In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the nation is looking to Congress for solutions to the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Don't hold your breath.
If recent history is any guide, Congress will offer very little that is constructive on this front.
In fact, the spectacular ineffectiveness of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the federal agency charged with preventing the illegal use and trafficking of firearms can be laid directly at the feet of Congress.
Beholden to the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby, federal lawmakers have systematically and deliberately emasculated the ATF.
The agency has had no permanent director for six years. In 2003, Congress approved the infamous Tiahrt Amendment, which initially barred ATF from sharing information on gun trafficking trends with other law enforcement agencies. So sweeping were the restrictions that for a time the ATF stopped publishing its annual gun crime statistics.
In response to a campaign by big-city mayors, some restrictions were removed. But what is left of the Tiahrt Amendment still prohibits the ATF from using tracing data in some legal proceedings to suspend or revoke the licenses of gun dealers suspected of selling guns to criminals. It also bars the agency from publicly disclosing detailed information the agency collects that connects gun tracing data with gun crimes.
Finally, Tiahrt also requires that the background checks of all gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. That nonsensical provision prevents the FBI from auditing the background checking system to make sure it is working as intended.
Of course the most obvious symbol of Congress' failure to protect citizens from gun violence is the so called "gun show loophole." Since 1994, federal law has required gun purchasers to undergo background checks when they buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer. The checks determine whether the prospective buyers are convicted felons or are prohibited from owning guns for some other reason, such as an adjudicated mental illness.
An estimated 40 percent of guns sold in this country are sold by unlicensed sellers, often at gun shows but also online, at flea markets or garage sales. No background checks are required.
The guns used by the teenagers who carried out the 1999 slaughter of 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado were purchased at gun shows from unlicensed dealers. The gun show loophole poses a threat of obvious and enormous lethality. It is easily closed, but only if the federal government has the will to act.
The one hopeful sign coming from Congress is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's appointment of Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, to lead a new task force focused on reducing gun violence.
An avid sportsman, hunter, former co-chair of the Sportsmen's Caucus and a combat veteran who carried an assault rifle in Vietnam, Thompson has already challenged the NRA's "good guy with a gun" solution to gun violence.
"We need a comprehensive approach that goes beyond just arming more people with guns," Thompson said in response to the NRA's post-Sandy Hook statement. "Closing loopholes in our mental health system, addressing our culture's glorification of violence, improving background checks for everyone who buys firearms and reinstating the ban on assault weapons and assault magazines must be part of a comprehensive approach to reduce and prevent gun violence."
That's a decent list of the bare minimum that needs to happen. Now, the question is, after Sandy Hook and in the face of NRA opposition, will Congress have the will to act?