Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s (D-NY) husband was killed in a mass shooting in 1993, the same horrific event that seriously wounded her son. Elected to Congress four years later, she fought for gun safety legislation. Not until 2007 did she succeed—in a small way. During the last session before winter holiday recess that year, Congress passed a law requiring federal agencies to keep up-to-date records on people who might be disqualified from purchasing guns such as those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, those convicted of crimes punishable by imprisonment for more than a year, and those with documented mental health issues. Other than a vote to renew a ban on plastic firearms in 2013, that’s the last gun safety legislation that got through Congress. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have died because of firearms, and the number of mass shootings are drastically increasing.
After the 50 deaths from a shooter in an Orlando nightclub on June 12, House Speaker Paul Ryan still refused to bring any gun safety bills to the floor. Fed up with continued inaction on the public health issue of deaths from guns, a majority of the House Democrats began a 25-hour sit-in on the chamber floor on June 22. At this time, Ryan has said that “all options” were being considered to discipline sit-in participants for their protests.
Ryan also promised to bring a gun bill approved by the NRA for a vote but then pulled it. He said, “We’re not going to rush it…. We’re going to get it right.”That was the day after two black men were murdered by police officers and the same day that a sniper murdered five Dallas (TX) police officers and wounded nine other people, seven of them police officers. The same week Ryan changed his mind, family members killed each other, and there were a variety of “smaller” mass shootings.
After a 15-hour filibuster by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the Senate voted on four bills–two of them supported by Democrats and the other two that would make no change. All four of them failed when the GOP voted against change and the Democrats refused to support do-nothing bills.
This past week, President Obama has been forced to make two painful speeches about horrific gun deaths—the first one after police killed two black men and the next after the deaths of five law enforcement officers in Dallas. During the second speech, he said that at some point people will need to think about the “powerful weapons” that help these deadly shootings. He said this after he expressed his horror at the “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement” and his support for law enforcement. He will cut short his diplomatic mission to Europe intended to smooth over foreign relations after the British Brexit fiasco in order to visit Dallas.
The president was immediately attacked for getting “political” (Ben Carson) because people need guns to “defend themselves from an overly aggressive government.” Another former GOP presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, wanted the president to emulate President Ronald Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster as if killing police and space shuttle disasters are the same. Actually, Reagan supported a universal background check, a seven-day waiting period before buying guns, and a ban on assault-weapons.
Since 2000, an average of 50 police officers have been deliberately killed each year. In contrast, the first six months of 2016 saw police kill 532 people, many of them unarmed, mentally ill, and people of color. About half of them were white, but black people and Native Americans are killed at higher rates than any other ethnic group. For example, 31 percent of people killed by police in 2012 were black although blacks comprise only 13 percent of the population.
The vast majority of these officers who killed people will receive minor or no punishment; not one officer was convicted of murder or manslaughter in 2015 when the police killed 1,200 people. An example is Freddie Gray, apprehended on April 12, 2015 because he allegedly possessed an illegal switchblade. He was alive when he was put into a van with no seatbelt; when the van arrived at the station, he was in a coma from a spinal injury that led to his death seven days later. Thus far, three of the six police officers involved in Gray’s death have been exonerated despite evidence to the contrary.
The most recently publicized death of a black man shot by a police officer was that of Philando Castile. He legally owned a gun and had a concealed carry permit, issued by Minnesota, for the gun. When the police stopped him for a broken tail light, he said that he had a permit. The police officer ordered Castile to show him his ID, Castile reached for his wallet to get it and was instantly shot dead. Castile, 32, had worked for the St. Paul Public Schools for 13 years, becoming a kitchen supervisor two years ago. He was shot and died in front of his girlfriend and the girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said in his speech that the killing was at least in part because of Castile’s death.
The NRA, pushed into a statement two days after Castile’s killing, said only that there should be an investigation. The organization most likely wants to avoid controversy about black men who are killed while carrying guns because studies show the relationship between white identity and opposition to gun control. The NRA said nothing about the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (LA) the day before Castile’s death after Sterling was thrown on the ground by two police officers because he was selling CDs in front of a convenience store. He didn’t draw his gun, but he was killed when the police shot him multiple times.
Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths set off protests, mostly peaceful and without incident, throughout the nation. Even the one in Dallas (TX), with about 800 protesters, was peaceful. After they started to disperse, a lone sniper, an Army veteran with an honorary discharge who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, killed five police officers and wounded seven other people with an assault weapon. The sniper was killed by the police with an armed bomb-disposal robot.
Only one person was involved in the killing although the police announced other suspects. They even posted his photo online asking people to help them find the suspect and left it there for almost 24 hours after he had turned himself in and they decided that he had nothing to do with the killings. His only crime was being a black man with a gun (although open carry is legal in Texas), but he’s now getting thousands of death threats.
In Portland (OR) a well-known Trump supporter pulled a gun on protesters, threatening them with it. He is well known for stalking and harassing people, filming them at leftist protests to put the video online with their names and addresses. The man had a round in the chamber of his gun that he used to sweep the crowd in front of him. He also had five other magazines of ammunition with him. Some of the protesters tried to calm him down and offered to take him out for coffee. As the incident ended, over a dozen police officers arrived in two trucks, and arrested him along with another man.
The Bahamas has issued a travel advisory for the United States, warning young men “to exercise extreme caution” in their “interactions with the police.”
A problem with passing legislation to make the country safer is the low bar for electing members of Congress. House Rules Chair Pete Sessions (R-TX) had earlier claimed that the Pulse nightclub, the location of the recent mass shooting, was not a “gay bar” although it described itself as the “hottest gay bar in Orlando.” Now he expresses concern that the Dallas police officers “let their guard down.” Perhaps we can’t expect much from a person who said in 2009 that House Republicans would look at “the Taliban” as a tactical model to take over Congress and that “everything we do in this body should be about messaging to win back the Senate.”
This philosophy aptly explains the reason behind the gridlock in the U.S. government reinforcing continued deaths from guns. It is guaranteed that Congress will hold a moment of silence for the five Dallas police officers killed this week. It’s probably also a guarantee that they won’t be commemorating the untimely death of Philando Castile—and the other people killed unnecessarily by the police.
“Black Americans shouldn’t be killed in routine traffic stops, and police shouldn’t be killed while protecting and serving their communities.”
Elizabeth Warren’s tweet succinctly provides the goal; now Congress needs to live up to it. They probably won’t.