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Editorial: Tentative bipartisan agreement should be the start of gun reform, not the end

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Gun reform

Robert Becker of Kirkwood, a former teacher, carries a sign calling for gun law reform as he marches down Market Street in downtown St. Louis during a protest Saturday. 

A tentative bipartisan agreement in the Senate on gun violence would strengthen federal background-check requirements for purchasers under 21, incentivize states to create red-flag laws, prevent domestic abusers from obtaining firearms and create other reforms. If approved, these smallest of baby steps would be the most significant federal gun legislation in almost three decades — a depressing statement about the gun culture’s iron grip on Congress. But it’s a valid endeavor, as long as it goes down as the start, not the end, of gun-safety reform in America.

The pattern of dysfunction has cycled for a generation now: A mass shooting spawns demands from Americans that Congress act. Democrats offer reasonable remedies like banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Republicans reject any action at all, terrified of enraging gun extremists who don’t comprise a majority of their party (or even a majority of gun owners), but can sway GOP primaries through their organization and fervency. So nothing happens and the issue sinks from public debate. Then the next mass shooting happens, and the whole process repeats itself.

That tragic pattern may yet repeat itself again in the wake of the recent back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. Democrats have an effective one-vote Senate majority, which isn’t enough to overcome an inevitable Republican filibuster of any new gun restrictions.

This time, though, there is some encouraging math in the 20-member group of senators who announced their gun-reform framework Sunday. Ten are Republicans (including long-time top gun-lobby ally, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri), enough to overcome a filibuster. Which means this legislation might actually happen.

The timidity of the agreement is undeniable. Its most significant component — requiring that federal background checks on gun buyers under 21 include a search of juvenile and mental-health records — will be almost meaningless in states like Missouri, where state law allows buyers to circumvent the background-check system altogether by buying from a private dealer instead of a federally licensed one. A true federal universal-background-check law would close that loophole, and a ban on any firearms purchases by teenagers would make sense.

(Missouri’s deranged new law declaring federal gun restrictions unenforceable here could theoretically complicate any such a proposal. Luckily, that brazenly unconstitutional law seems unlikely to survive its pending legal challenge.)

If this agreement ultimately becomes law, some Republicans will undoubtedly invoke it in the future to counter valid criticism that they haven’t done enough to confront gun violence. They shouldn’t get that pass. This agreement doesn’t do enough, by a lot, but it’s worth pursuing for two reasons: One, at this point, anything is better than nothing. And, two, it will be an acknowledgement in principle, by at least some Republicans, that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough to confront America’s gun-violence crisis. That’s a start.

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