The mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas, killing 19 children and two parents, was a reminder of all the ways the United States has failed its people. A nation that still retains promise, America is now held captive by political polarization and a fanatical gun lobby. There are more firearms than people.
It’s important to remember, as these mass shootings continue to occur, that the problem is guns: all of them, not just assault rifles, but handguns too. The assault weapon ban, which lapsed in 2004, should be renewed. Somehow, it must become much harder in this country to purchase a weapon. No 18-year-old, especially one with such a deeply troubled history as the alleged Texas gunman, should be able to buy a firearm.
After the racist shooting at a Buffalo supermarket earlier in the month, the Democratic establishment temporarily swung away from the scourge of guns to one of online misinformation and how to crack down on it. Democrats of all ideological stripes swiftly backed new legislation that would “improve intelligence-sharing” between law enforcement agencies, building on a bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee that would create permanent offices within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and FBI to “monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism”. The proposal would also boost training to local police to detect and investigate what they believe is terrorism.
Since the motivations of the Texas killer are more opaque, there has been less talk about such measures. This is for the best. Measures to empower federal surveillance state apparatuses inevitably backfire, leading to the abuse of civil liberties, particularly endangering vulnerable populations. American Muslims after 9/11 understand the danger of unleashing DHS or the FBI on so-called terrorism suspects. The term remains vague enough to encompass all kinds of people who may, for whatever reason, appear suspicious to overzealous federal officials.
Using mass shootings to expand the power of DHS would be a major error, one that would inevitably punish the left when Republicans take power again. Donald Trump or another rightwing president would not hesitate to reclassify various progressive organizations or movements as domestic terrorism, especially if they reside beyond the political mainstream.
The focus must remain on guns. It’s understandable, in one sense, that Democrats would shift to fretting about growing the purview of a Bush-created agency: taking action is immediately plausible. There may be enough votes to pass the bills and invite bipartisan support. Banning assault weapons or even instituting increased background checks has been a political dead-end for so long because the gun lobby owns the Republican party and many rural voters are gun-owners.
This is the intractable challenge. Democrats do not have the votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. The recurrence of mass shootings – Sandy Hook, Parkland, El Paso – has not budged Republicans, who continue to deny the reality that America is the only affluent nation that grapples with such gun violence and death. Mental health initiatives are fine, but the problem is the number of people who are able to, without any effort, buy guns and shoot them. Mass slaughter is not as plausible with a knife. Armed security at every school-building in America, logistically impossible, still could not stop a determined murderer with military-grade weaponry.
The handgun dilemma must also be solved. Democrat-run states have cracked down on them and are chasing after the ghost-gun manufacturers that create untraceable weapons. But guns continue to flow across state lines, avoiding detection from police. Gun violence of the more regular kind plagues cities everywhere. Every one of those murders is deeply tragic.
If the federal government is paralyzed, Democrats must redouble their efforts in various state legislatures to flip chambers and win executive offices. This may be the only answer. States individually can do a great deal on the gun control front. If limiting access to guns is unpopular in conservative states, Democrats must find ways to campaign on other issues and implement safety laws once in power. For starters, there should be more bipartisan consensus around raising the age of gun purchases. If 18-year-olds cannot legally drink, why can they buy firearms? Since most violent crime is committed by the very young, cutting off guns to teenagers could make a small difference.
No matter what, Democrats cannot succumb to nihilism or seek dangerous, stopgap measures that infringe on civil liberties. Runaway terrorism investigations will not stop gun violence. Making it far harder to acquire a weapon will.
Ross Barkan is a journalist based in New York City. He is the author of Demolition Night, a novel, and The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York