There is a chance, albeit a very slim one, that Congress may find the courage to act against gun violence in some way as the country continues to reel from the carnage of another mass murder, the largest in our nation’s history with a firearm.
There also is quite a possibility that once the furor subsides over the tragedy in Orlando, Fla., apathy will set in as it has time and again. We will then await the next horror, which seems inevitable in a nation where huge numbers of citizens value their right to bear arms almost above everything else, and where the Supreme Court of the land has certified that dubious constitutional privilege despite the fact it was written 225 years ago when weapons were one-shot affairs with unrifled barrels and little standing army in what was then mainly a wilderness.
The hideousness of 49 innocents being killed by a single actor, who was either a terrorist or a mad man or both, seems to have cracked, at least slightly, the wall of congressional opposition to sensible conversation about this enormously flawed firearms culture, which has resulted in regular tragedies from weapons of mass destruction designed for the use on the battlefield and nowhere else. Republicans and Democrats alike have indicated perhaps it is time to keep semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, the type used in the Orlando attack, out of the hands of those who are being officially watched by the government as possible terrorists influenced directly or indirectly by religious radicals.
Even Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and the National Rifle Association and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have indicated some openness for new restrictions on the sale of such weapons as long as the law-abiding aren’t prevented from owning them. Denying firearms to those on a terrorist watch list, for instance, would be a start, and a bill to do this may now have a chance. Modifications would likely be needed for it to gain support, and hopefully those changes would not render it useless.
Without certification, how does one identify who is crazy or about to be or who is a real terrorist threat? Apparently not even the FBI has that answer. It once again ignored the signs of a radicalized mass murderer although its agents had the man under surveillance for months before deciding he wasn’t a threat. Perhaps warning gun dealers to notify the bureau if he made a purchase, which he did, would have been a good idea.
Holding gun manufacturers and dealers liable in instances like Orlando or the Newtown, Conn., massacre of little children might help too, except that Congress decided to protect them from such litigation. Interestingly, a liability suit against the manufacturers of the AR-15 used by the killer at Newtown has survived a court test. But this could take years to wend through the judicial levels with odds that are very long.
The brutal fact is that the efforts to ultimately ban the sale of semi-automatic battlefield weapons to civilians probably isn’t going anywhere except to be buried along with the poor souls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The reason is simple. That horse left the barn with its rifle scabbard full a longtime ago. In fact, few gun laws, no matter how stringent — even the nullification of the pernicious Second Amendment — would have much impact. There are more than 300 million firearms in the hands of Americans and many now are of the kind used to indiscriminately eliminate those in a large gathering like the Orlando nightclub. Every time one of these monstrous events takes place hundreds of our law-abiders rush out and buy more of the AR-15 variety with the excuse they need to protect themselves.
There is no evidence of any armed civilian inside the club having come to the rescue of himself or his fellow victims in the chaotic hours of the standoff with the shooter and police. Most of them did the wise thing — hid or played dead or escaped out the back. Still, 49 died and 53 were wounded. It has been that way in all these deadly affairs.
Does all this mean we are hopeless, that there is little we can do but pray? There is always a way but as long as the advocates of unfettered gun ownership refuse to budge and the Congress allows it, salvation may still be a long way off.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.