Editorials, Opinion

Better late than never on gun reform

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was one bright spot that was almost entirely overshadowed: For the first time in decades, Congress passed legislation addressing America’s out of control gun violence.

The bill, Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022, which President Biden has already signed into law, is a monumental breakthrough for bipartisanship in Congress but only a small step toward curbing the gun violence epidemic. But, better to have something than nothing, and better late than never.

Over the next five years, the federal government will provide states with $750 million for crisis intervention programs. This includes, but is not limited to, red flag laws. (Nothing in the bill requires states to adopt red flag laws.) The funding can also be used for mental health courts, drug courts and/or veteran courts, as well as alternate forms of extreme risk protection orders. The idea is to bolster the systems and programs that can reach people before they hurt themselves or others.

For decades, there has been a gaping hole in gun legislation called the “boyfriend loophole.” Previously, someone could be barred from owning a gun if they were convicted of domestic violence, but only if the violence was against a spouse, someone they live with and/or have a child with. Intimate partners — like boyfriends or girlfriends — who don’t meet those standards were excluded. The new law states, “The term ‘dating relationship’ means a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature,” with some caveats. The law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge to have their gun rights restored after five years. As critics have pointed out, the new law does not cover anyone who has had a restraining order put on them by an intimate partner, even though such people are still potentially dangerous.

Also in the new law are penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking. Straw purchases are when someone buys a gun for another person (usually someone who cannot legally own a gun) but tells the seller they will be the owner. Gun trafficking refers broadly to the movement of firearms from the legal to the illegal market. Under the new law, the straw purchaser or trafficker can face up to 15 years in prison or up to 25 years if the gun was used in a serious crime.

The new law also clarifies who needs to be licensed as a gun dealer. Previously, the requirement applied to someone who “devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” The new law expands that slightly to anyone who sells firearms “to predominantly earn a profit.” This excludes people who are selling guns as part of settling an estate or thinning out personal collections. By expanding the definition of who has to be a federally licensed gun dealer, the bill implicitly increases the number of sellers who are required to run background checks on prospective buyers.

Speaking of background checks … Congress failed to raise the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, instead telling sellers to do enhanced background checks on buyers under 21 and settling for encouraging states to provide juvenile and mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. States are not mandated to do this; a few do so voluntarily and even fewer do it regularly. To this end, the law provides $200 million in grants for states to make it easier to upload the requested information and gives the NICS three business days to alert the seller if something of concern pops up.

Finally, the new law provides billions of dollars for mental health services and school security. For specifics, we recommend you read the guide by the bill’s cosponsor, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). It lays out the myriad initiatives and breaks down how funding will be allocated.

The new law isn’t the comprehensive solution we wanted — and still need — but it is a start in the right direction. However, it remains to be seen how much of this law stands after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling unreasonably expanding gun rights.