Editorials

America needs to break the cycle on gun control

A woman cries in San Bernardino during a vigil Thursday night for shooting victims.
A woman cries in San Bernardino during a vigil Thursday night for shooting victims. The Associated Press

There’s a very good reason why the gun control debate reignites after every mass shooting, just as it has after the massacre in San Bernardino.

Whatever the motive or mental state of the killer, guns are the weapon of choice, especially ones that can kill many people quickly.

But on guns, America is stuck in an endless loop that is getting us nowhere.

Cities and states can pass restrictions – California has some of the toughest – but they lose their effectiveness if you can just cross a border, or go online, to get around them.

Federal laws are needed, and the public generally supports stricter measures, but any action is blocked by the power and money of the National Rifle Association.

Even the most innocuous legislation can’t get through Congress. A case in point: For nearly 20 years, the federal government has been blocked from funding or doing research on gun violence and its impact on public health. It’s willful ignorance: Why would we not study what is a deadly epidemic, killing about 80 Americans every day?

The author of that restriction now regrets it. On Wednesday, just hours before the San Bernardino shooting, a group of doctors went to Capitol Hill to deliver petitions signed by more than 2,000 physicians urging that the ban be lifted.

Three years ago, after 20 children and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco convened a task force led by Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena Democrat. A gun owner and avid hunter, he’s no anti-gun extremist. The task force put forward common-sense proposals that did not unduly restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners, hunters or target shooters.

But not only have none of its recommendations been approved, none have even made it to a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Since Sandy Hook, America has suffered more than 32,000 gun deaths and dozens of mass shootings. Wednesday’s, which killed 14 people in San Bernardino, is the deadliest since Newtown.

Authorities say that all four guns used were apparently purchased legally – two handguns reportedly at a gun store in nearby Corona, two assault rifles by someone else who is not a suspect. The two rifles are not specifically listed among the models outlawed in California and would be legal if they had a minor design change to comply with a law banning ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

The FBI said Friday it is investigating the rampage as an act of terrorism, possibly inspired from abroad. It said there’s no indication that the shooters – U.S.-born Syed Farook and his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik – were part of a bigger terror cell. It is looking into reports that Malik pledged support for the Islamic State on her Facebook page.

After the shooting, many Republicans seized on the killers as possible terrorists, yet then blocked a measure to close the loophole that allows people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list to buy guns. How does that make sense?

Even with many facts unknown or unclear, the aftermath of the massacre has been so familiar and so frustrating, with politicians and partisans on both sides grabbing for details that support their cause.

As usual, Democrats are calling to renew the federal ban on many assault weapons, which took effect in 1994 but expired in 2004, as well as universal background checks for gun buyers. As usual, Republicans are focusing on the shooters and stressing mental health treatment.

But it’s not an either-or proposition.

We should be doing more on both. We need to improve mental health services and make them more accessible. But we can’t ignore the wide availability of guns, and the need to keep them out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable.

At some point, public safety must be put ahead of an individual right to buy any kind of gun. We can’t stop every mass shooting, but we can certainly make them less common.

But unless ordinary Americans rise up and pressure their legislators to counter the influence of the gun lobby, little will change and the bloody carnage will continue.

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