Sensible gun laws require political will, judicial wisdom

By Ruth Marcus, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoRuth Marcus

Like so many other people these days, I regain my composure only to see it crumble in an instant at the piercing sight of a photograph, Daniel Barden with his impish smile and missing front teeth. At the devastating power of a simple sentence, about Charlotte Bacon's Girl Scout troop: "There were 10 girls in the group. Only five are left."

This national wallowing serves a purpose -- not only to grieve but to summon the resolve for change. There is talk, finally, belatedly, of reinstating the long-lapsed ban on assault weapons. This is an admittedly imperfect, certainly porous solution, but a useful step nonetheless. Even better would be a companion measure, again lapsed with the expiration of the assault weapons ban, to prohibit the manufacture of magazines of more than 10 rounds. It is testament to our political fecklessness that these restrictions were not reimposed in the aftermath of Fort Hood, or Tucson, or Aurora.

And we need to ask whether changes in technology offer other solutions. For example, requiring guns to be stored in safes with fingerprint recognition locks, or equipped with trigger locks in the form of fingerprint readers.

There are two additional areas we must confront to respond effectively to Newtown: first, the power of money in politics; second, the role of the courts.

Legislative fixes for gun violence are elusive because they are, or appear to be, politically perilous. How else to explain the shameful fact that President Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 said he would work to reinstate the assault weapons ban, had scarcely a word to say in its defense after the previous shootings? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Rifle Association and its affiliates spent nearly $20 million during the 2012 campaign. Yet reports of its ability to deliver political death blows may be greatly exaggerated. In politics, perception shapes reality. Lawmakers fear the NRA, powerful or not.

So let money counter money. Use the forces unleashed by Citizens United for good instead of for evil, a super-sized super PAC to thwart the NRA. Call it Sanity PAC. Bloomberg launched such an effort this year, with his Independence USA super PAC. Among other steps, Independence USA pumped $3.3 million into a last-minute, successful effort to oust incumbent Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat with a B-plus rating from the NRA, in favor of Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, rated D.

Constitution not suicide pact

What if candidates tempted to take a politically dangerous vote in favor of gun control knew that a super PAC would outspend the NRA? What if candidates learned to fear the gun-control lobby instead of the NRA? This won't work everywhere. In safe Republican districts, or overwhelmingly Republican states, the threat of a primary challenge will be too potent. But Sanity PAC could choose wisely -- perhaps the 15 Republicans in congressional districts that Obama won in 2012, or Democrats, like Baca, wobbly on gun control.

Political will must be matched by judicial wisdom. The Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms, but the Constitution, as Justice Robert Jackson said, is not a suicide pact. Even as it invalidated the District of Columbia's ban on possession of handguns in the home (along with a companion requirement for trigger locks), the Supreme Court carved out space for reasonable restrictions.

Now, federal courts are busy determining which ones. In a recent ruling, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated Illinois' broad prohibition against carrying loaded guns in public. The 9th Circuit is weighing laws in California and Hawaii that require applicants for concealed-carry permits to demonstrate a legitimate need to carry a weapon.

This issue is hurtling toward the Supreme Court. Will the justices interfere with states' decisions about how best to protect their citizens from gun violence? Surely even the most conservative will remember Daniel, Charlotte and the other dead children before taking that terrible step.