Why the President, Congress and the Supreme Court can't -- or won't -- stop mass shootings

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

This cycle of gun violence is sad, predictable and permanent.

It is permanent because presidents lack power, while Capitol Hill is paralyzed by minority rule. And federal courts, though poised to give the power back to the people’s representatives on abortion, have routinely struck down state laws to reasonably curb gun access.
Part of the country thinks the answer is fewer guns, while another part wants to see more guns everywhere to take down deranged gunmen.
    Journalists like me aren’t even writing new stories about how little can happen to address the problem. They’re regurgitating old ones written after previous shootings because nothing has changed.
        We know that gun violence can happen anywhere because it has happened everywhere. Schools, churches, supermarkets, ball fields, Walmarts. Gun violence targets young children, Black people, Asian Americans, random citizens and politicians from both parties.
        More US kids 17 and under died from gun violence in 2021 than have died from Covid-19 during the pandemic:

          Powerless President

          President Joe Biden couldn’t even get a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed in the first year and a half of his presidency. His first nominee, though a career ATF official, had ties to groups that support gun restrictions. His second nominee, Steve Dettelbach, had his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
          Biden, doing what he can, has begun administrative efforts to crack down on home-assembly ghost guns, but lacks the power to do much about the guns used in mass shootings.
          Former President Donald Trump’s administration tried to reinterpret an existing law against civilian ownership of machine guns to ban so-called “bump stocks” like the one used to kill 58 people in Las Vegas in 2017. Gun rights groups have sued the Biden administration over the rule.

          Paralyzed Senate

          After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, a majority of senators agreed to a bipartisan bill to expand background checks to all gun purchases except those between family members. It failed because a bipartisan minority opposed the bill.
          Notably, the three Democrats who opposed that 2013 bill have all been replaced by Republicans in the Senate. Another Democrat opposed the bill for procedural reasons.
          Three Republicans supported the bill and two of the seats they represented are up for grabs in tightly contested elections this fall.
          Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had no answers for how to move gun legislation other than to encourage people to vote in November in the midterm elections. But no likely election outcome will give either party the 60 votes needed to pass meaningful legislation.

          Partisanship is growing

          Democrats, who narrowly control the Senate today, have moved toward a vote on a background check bill, but it is doomed to fail without those 60 votes.
          There are efforts to legislate in other ways, with red flag laws to take guns from people who raise concerns about a shooting, for instance. A red flag law was enacted in Florida after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, for instance. Read more about red flag laws.
          Any compromise seems a long way from becoming reality. And it’s not clear those bills would have kept guns from most of the people who carry out these horrible crimes.
          North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said he worries red flag laws would also take guns from people who don’t need them taken away.
          “Virtually every one that I’ve seen here has been one that sweep up law-abiding gun owners into what I consider to be an overreach,” Tillis told CNN on Tuesday.

          Many states keep loosening laws. Other states’ laws don’t work

          The Texas Tribune looks at how Texas, despite seeing many mass shootings in the state, has moved toward ever looser gun laws. Last year, it moved away from gun permits, allowing most people to openly carry guns without a permit or training.
          Meanwhile, laws in other states have been ineffective. Red flag laws failed to identify the shooter who targeted Black Americans at a Buffalo grocery store this month. A red flag law in Indiana failed to identify the shooter who killed eight people at a FedEx facility in 2021. The law has since been tweaked.
          The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety notes that mass shooters often find their way around ownership restrictions, despite prior warning signs.

          Courts strike down laws

          Most restrictions on guns are enforced at the state level, and there is a patchwork of laws across the country. Even in states where strong majorities support gun control measures, federal courts have stood in the way.
          Citing the heroism of musket-wielding young people who he said fought in the Revolutionary War hundreds of years ago, a federal judge earlier this month threw out a California law that banned sales of semiautomatic guns to anyone under the age of 21.
          The Supreme Court appears poised to increase the number of guns on US streets — that is, if it chooses to strike down New York’s law governing concealed handguns. A decision is expected in the next month or so.
          The country is clearly split on the issue of guns and how to restrict them. There is an apocryphal belief among many Americans that the Constitution views gun ownership in the same way it views life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. An increasingly conservative Supreme Court has turned that belief into precedent.
          You’ve certainly read that large majorities of the country support certain gun restrictions — and that is true.

          Support for gun restrictions rises and falls

          But it is not a vast majority of the country that wants a wholesale rewriting of the nation’s gun laws.
          CNN’s director of polling Jennifer Agiesta notes that “support for stricter gun laws tends to spike after high-profile mass shootings, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which occurred a few weeks before Gallup measured its recent high of 67% support for stricter laws in March 2018.”
          In more recent Gallup polling, only a narrow majority of Americans are in favor of stricter laws on gun sales, and a survey last year from ABC News and The Washington Post found that about half the public says that neither stricter laws nor stricter enforcement would reduce the amount of violent crime in the US.
          All that could change after this new, horrible string of shootings.
          There is broad support in a Pew Research Center analysis of polling last year for some specific ideas that go far beyond what’s possible in Congress:
          • 87% supported preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.
          • 81% supported making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.

          People do support specific things

          Smaller but sill substantial majorities supported more controversial ideas, according to the Pew analysis:
          • 66% backed creating a federal database to track gun sales.
          • 64% approved of “banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.”
          • 63% approved “banning assault-style weapons.”
            Despite the Supreme Court’s skepticism of New York’s permit law, just 20% in Pew’s polling, including only 35% of gun owners nationwide, favored a law “allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit.”
            What this all means is that despite the cries that something — or anything — must be done, the US government is predisposed to inaction, the courts are very respectful of gun rights and the absolutists have a chokehold on the system. Until one or all of those things change, and as long as there are more guns than people in the US, this cycle will continue.

            Comments are closed.