Seizing the Moment on Gun Safety

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Gun violence in America remains a public-health emergency. Overshadowed of late by the Covid pandemic, its toll is still terrible by any sane measure. Indeed, these twin scourges have compounded each other. Including suicides, more than 43,000 people died from firearms in 2020. The gun homicide rate increased 25% over the previous year.

Joe Biden’s election and the prospect of a slender Democratic majority in the Senate have vastly improved the chance of progress on gun safety. (The National Rifle Association's difficulties — it filed for bankruptcy last week — might help, too.) The new administration should push Congress to vote on legislation to crack down on illegal gun sales and keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people. If Republicans persist in blocking common-sense reforms, Biden should use executive authority to act on his own.

The first task is to limit unlawful access to firearms. The federal government requires that licensed gun dealers conduct background checks on all buyers at the point of sale, but the system is riddled with flaws. People banned from buying guns due to criminal histories can use unlicensed sellers at gun shows or on the Internet — a loophole that lets hundreds of thousands of weapons be sold without background checks. 

Biden should call on Congress to enact a bill passed by the House in 2019 expanding background checks to cover non-licensed dealers, as 25 states already do. He should push lawmakers to stop gun sales going forward after three business days even though the background check is unfinished — a flaw exploited by the white supremacist who killed nine people at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The “boyfriend loophole” needs to be closed as well. This allows domestic abusers access to guns despite criminal convictions or restraining orders, simply because they aren’t married to their victims. Building on legislation enacted in 17 states, Biden should back a federal “red flag” law to allow law enforcement and family members to petition federal courts to remove guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Funding for proven, community-based violence-interruption programs should be boosted. The $25 million appropriation for research on the public-health consequences of gun violence should be doubled, with extra money going toward collecting data on firearm accidents, gun suicide and police shootings, among other things. Biden should increase the budget for the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco and order it to move more aggressively to stop illegal gun trafficking, regulate do-it-yourself “ghost” guns and exercise closer oversight of gun dealers.

Biden will have to be realistic. Moving legislation through a closely divided Senate won’t be easy, and the administration’s attention will be focused, to begin with, on defeating the pandemic and reviving the economy. But the new president can make an early start by standing up an inter-agency task force to coordinate action across the executive branch, and by supporting cities, states, grassroots organizations and businesses in countering the influence of the gun lobby. 

Overcoming gun violence will require better policies and wise leadership. Donald Trump offered neither, and countless families have been ripped apart as a result. Biden must try to make up for lost time.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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