OPINION — At nearly every Democratic presidential event I’ve been to this year, the candidates have talked about the devastating effects of the 1994 crime bill on the black community.
The legislation, which President Bill Clinton signed and Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator, pushed through the Judiciary Committee, was written as a response to an explosion in violent crime in urban areas across the country. In New York City, for example, there had been 2,245 murders in 1990. (There were 289 last year.)
But with sentencing provisions like “three strikes and you’re out,” the law also disproportionately sent black men to prison, many for the rest of their lives. During the last presidential debate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who lives in a low-income neighborhood in Newark, told Biden that the crime bill “destroyed communities like mine.”
So it’s absolutely true that it’s time to rewrite the crime bill and push for more criminal justice reform. But 25 years later, the crimes that keep Americans up at night are not out of some scene from “Law & Order.” They’re happening in all of the places that used to be normal and joyful — sending your child to first grade or going to church on Sunday or shopping for school supplies at Walmart — all places that have become targets for American mass shooters in recent years.
Instead of just unwinding the old crime bill that took aim at black and brown communities, it’s time to pass a new crime bill for the mostly white, almost entirely male, population of mass shooters who are steadily transforming our country into a shooting range to make up for their own sick frustrations with life.
Back to the future
The first thing a new bill should do is to make guns harder to acquire and mass-casualty weapons impossible to possess. Think it can’t happen in Washington? It already did — in the 1994 crime bill. For all of the law’s unthinkable consequences, it also enacted nearly all of the gun reforms we are discussing as “too radical” today, including a 10-round limit on high-capacity magazines and an assault weapons ban. Not so radical, right? Those provisions expired after 10 years as a part of a compromise to get the bill passed. But they were all passed into law, and that’s the point.
Second, a new crime bill should also require background checks. Oh wait, that already happened too — when Congress passed the Brady bill in 1993 to create the first background checks on guns purchased through federally licensed firearms dealers (which currently make up about 78 percent of sales). Earlier this year, the Democrat-led House passed a bill to expand those background checks to nearly all purchases and transfers, but the Senate has taken no action.
Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have said that instead of expanding background checks, they would like to see “red flag” laws that would let police or family members keep guns out of the hands of people deemed a danger to themselves or others. That seems perfectly reasonable — but there is no reason to choose one over the other.
Along with guns and mental health provisions, a third focus has to be the tech element, which didn’t even exist in 1994. The New York Times reported over the weekend that the gunmen in the mosque attack in New Zealand, the synagogue attack near San Diego and the Walmart shooting in El Paso had posted white nationalist screeds on 8chan, the unmoderated, unregulated message board, in the moments just before they began their rampages.
The creator of 8chan, Frederick Brennan, told the Times that the site should be banned, but only Jim Watkins, the website’s current operator, or his web hosts can do that right now. One host has blocked 8chan, but Congress should levy criminal and civil liabilities on any web operator, host or registrar that allows digital content that significantly contributes to mass shootings. If a jury can hold McDonald’s liable for $2.86 million in damages for selling too-hot coffee to a customer, the people who breed this kind of risk for domestic terrorism should be held accountable too.
What’s a Republican to do?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his Republican colleagues are “prepared to do our part” to respond to the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but after two decades of inaction, it’s hard to imagine what “our part” even means. Although the House passed its background check legislation in February, the Senate hasn’t moved an inch. In 2013 and 2015, senators also voted down the Manchin-Tooomey amendment to expand background checks.
But it’s not just Senate Republicans who are to blame. House Republicans need to give their Senate counterparts a running start to do anything controversial. Look no further than the February vote on background checks — where just eight House Republicans voted “yes” — as the reason the measure is dead in the Senate today.
It’s not clear anymore what Republicans are afraid of when it comes to passing even modest gun safety measures that were U.S. law 15 years ago. Maybe they’re afraid of the NRA? But at this moment, the NRA leadership is eating its own under accusations of fraud and theft. Are they really so scary anymore?
Maybe GOP lawmakers are just worried about losing their jobs. But the 2018 midterms had a lesson for Republicans blocking gun control measures — you are probably going to lose your seat anyway. Why not go down for a moment of bravery instead of a moment of cowardice? The change would do us all good.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.