The horrific tragedy that happened in Las Vegas a week ago today was only the latest, deadliest mass shooting in America.
Last year, it was 49 people killed in Orlando.
The year before, 14 were killed in San Bernardino.
And in 2012, no less than 20 children were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Now the nation is once again reeling after 58 people were murdered and nearly 500 others injured at an outdoor concert by a monster who shot high-powered weapons from a high-rise hotel suite, and whose motives may never be fully understood. Investigators are still working to put together the pieces.
But we needn’t wait to take the next steps to prevent the next tragedy. There is a mountain of evidence — a growing pile of dead bodies — to indicate what action must be taken.
First, members of Congress should be commended for their willingness to discuss possibility of banning bump stocks. The devices, which allow bullets to be fired rapidly from certain kinds of rifles, essentially turning them into automatic weapons, were found on guns used by the Las Vegas shooter. This week a relatively surprising number of federal lawmakers, including traditionally pro-gun Republicans and legislators from pro-gun states – such as the U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn of Texas – said they would be willing to consider making it illegal to sell them.
On Thursday, Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced legislation to ban sale of bump-fire stocks. That same day, the National Rifle Association issued a statement in support of a legal review and “additional regulations” for the devices. The organization already prohibits their use at NRA-supported gun ranges.
As the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives undertakes such a review, Congress should move swiftly to crack down the sale of these devices and any others that make it easy for would-be mass murderers to skirt federal laws. While those bent on killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible may still ultimately find a way around such barriers, we can and should make doing so as difficult as possible.
And this should be the common ground from which we can begin to take additional steps — at both the federal and state level.
About a year ago, Missoula attempted to get its hands around the problem at the local level with a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective ordinance requiring background checks on most gun sales within city limits. Earlier this year, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox rightly noted that the ordinance violated state law prohibiting the regulation of firearm purchase, sale or transfer by local governments, and overturned it.
Meanwhile, Montana is subjected to foolhardy new attempts to encourage more guns seemingly every legislative session. In the most recent session, for one, self-serving House Bill 280 would have allowed legislators to carry concealed weapons on state property. It was vetoed by the governor, as was HB 246, which directly contradicted federal law in seeking to make it legal to carry firearms on U.S. Postal Service property. HB 385, which would have allowed school employees with concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms at school, merely missed the transmittal deadline.
Laws like these seek to take Montana in the wrong direction on gun safety, even as common-sense bills — like the one sponsored by Missoula’s Rep. Andrea Olsen to provide tax credits for the purchase of gun safes and trigger locks — never make it out of committee.
The evidence shows that mass shootings can happen anywhere, in any state. Only months ago, three people were killed and two were injured in a shooting in Lodge Grass on the Crow Indian Reservation in what authorities believe to be a meth-related crime.
Mass shootings aside, Montana has a relatively high rate of gun ownership and of gun-related deaths, with suicides accounting for the vast majority. Multiple studies have confirmed that keeping guns out of the hands of suicidal individuals is an effective suicide-prevention strategy. Contrary to widespread belief, the majority of suicide attempts are spur-of-the moment, and the longer it takes for a suicidal person to find a lethal method, the less likely it is that the person will follow through. That's why encouraging gun-owners to keep their firearms safely locked, unloaded, in gun safes whenever they are not in use is part of most state suicide prevention plans, including Montana's.
Beyond this obvious precaution, it seems equally obvious that individuals who have recently been convicted of serious violent crimes, and who pose a clear threat to themselves or others, should not be permitted to purchase firearms. The point of conducting background checks is to prevent such individuals from obtaining deadly weapons. Yet these checks are only as good as the information made available within the system, and no good at all for most private sales for which no background check is required.
Attorney General Fox, who leads the Montana Department of Justice, ought to lead the discussion on improving gun safety in our state. As Montana’s chief law enforcement official, he has a duty to champion public safety and protect innocents from preventable gun violence. His office should study the problem as well as possible solutions, and offer suggestions to the 2019 Legislature. Coming from the state’s highest authority on such matters, and Fox being a Republican as well, such suggestions will hopefully be accepted by even Montana’s most conservative legislators.
If not, they had better be prepared to substitute their own substantive solutions. We must not wait until the next suicide, the next domestic homicide and yes, the next mass shooting, to do what we can to stop it.