Washington saw another remarkable session of apparent bipartisan accommodation last week, as senators from both parties met with President Trump to discuss measures aimed at containing mounting gun violence. The recent horrific high school shooting in Florida seems to have galvanized the nation in ways that other massacres have not.
Maybe this was the inevitable last straw that will bend the nation’s leaders to finally act on reasonable gun safety measures. But the display of political amicability at the White House was eerily reminiscent of another recent meeting, on immigration, when everyone seemed to be on his or her best behavior, nodding in apparent agreement on the need to clean up our incoherent immigration laws. That effort ended in the usual stalemate and recrimination that have become the hallmark of this administration and this Congress. If a repeat of that fruitless dialogue is to be avoided, things will have to change at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
First, President Trump will have to get his own act together. He can’t be all things to all people, saying whatever pops into his head, darting back and forth from pro-gun rights to pro-gun safety. It probably would help, too, to stop lecturing senators on their gun control records and their affinity or aversion to the National Rifle Association. Everyone in the Capitol knows that the NRA is a powerful advocacy group, and that gun owners are a forceful constituency. Senators as different as Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell have pro-NRA records because large numbers of gun owners in their largely rural sates use their guns responsibly to shoot at target ranges and for hunting animals, not people.
Then there’s the nagging, not-so-little challenge of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which gives broad protection to gun ownership in America. Some may think it goes too far in protecting gun rights, just as some find the First Amendment’s protection of free speech tough to take when it leads to flag burning or pro-Nazi rallies we abhor but must tolerate in the name of freedom. But with each successive gun massacre, Americans are coming to a consensus that the right to bear arms — like all other rights — must be balanced against the rights of all to be safe in our schools, churches and public places, on our streets and in our homes.
Just as no one has a right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, no one has a right to shower it with bullets, either. And with all due respect to the NRA’s leadership, the debate about guns today is not about keeping guns or losing other constitutional rights. It’s not either the Second Amendment or fight, and NRA leaders do a disservice to the nation when they sound such false alarms.
So there are some reasonable measures that can and should be taken to balance these rights. I say that as long-time defender of the Second Amendment who respected gun owners’ rights in the Senate. Here’s what Congress can do: It can raise the age for buying guns to 21, similar to age restrictions on alcohol purchases. It can significantly tighten access to guns for those with mental health problems or criminal records with stronger background checks.
It can close the gun show and private sale loopholes that circumvent such background checks. It can restrict sale of high-capacity ammunition cartridges, bump stocks and other devices that turn rifles into machine guns. And it can reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons like those used in recent massacres.
To do that, Congress will have to get past the temptation in both parties to retreat to their respective political corners, avoiding hard decisions that can be reached only by meeting in the neglected political center. If gun-rights-leaning members of Congress are terrified of the NRA, and gun-safety-leaning members are terrified by the gun-control lobby, nothing will get done … again. They must instead heed the growing majority of Americans in the middle who want freedom and safety to be given equal consideration. They must remember, the bull’s-eye is in the center, not at the fringes.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.