Rare action on guns – in courts and Congress

July 5, 2022 7:00 am

Gun safety advocates rally in Washington D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

While there is often a lot of talk about measures to reduce gun violence, and just as frequent push-back, it is rare to see as much action on gun issues as we’ve experienced in the last two weeks.

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision expanding the Second Amendment to guns carried outside the home; Congress passed legislation restricting access to guns on June 24, which was signed by President Biden on June 25; and effective July 1, Indiana eliminated the requirement that individuals carrying loaded guns in public get a permit.

The horrific massacres in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot by an 18-year old with an AR-15 style rifle on May 24, and in Buffalo, NY, where 10 individuals were killed by an 18-year old with a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle 10 days earlier, certainly contributed to the legislative action. But this also took place in the daily context of 42  murdered, 65 who die by suicide, and 210 who survive being shot.

The “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act” is the first piece of federal legislation to reduce gun violence to become law after contested roll-call votes since the so-called “Assault Weapon Ban” was added to the 1994 Crime Bill by a 216-214 House vote and a 56-43 vote in the Senate (the filibuster was not used routinely back then). Both Indiana Senators, Richard Lugar and Dan Coats, were in support.

The 2022 legislation could help reduce gun violence in Indiana and nationwide by closing the “boyfriend loophole” which puts non-spouses convicted of domestic violence assault on the federal “prohibited purchaser” list, tightens the definition of a gun “seller”, expands background checks for those under the age of 21, addresses gun trafficking, and provides funds for crisis intervention programs, including “red flag” laws, as well as mental health services.

Hoosier on board

Of particular interest to Hoosiers was Todd Young’s vote (along with 14 other Republicans) to support the Senate bill which passed 65-33. While this vote follows in the tradition of support for measures to reduce gun violence taken by Republicans Lugar and Coats, Young was the only Indiana Republican to vote for this bill. He argued that “We don’t have to choose between protecting Second Amendment rights and keeping guns from those who might be a danger to themselves or others. We can and should do both.”

In addition to doing the right thing, this vote might also reflect a calculation that this is smart politics. Groups like Mom’s Demand Action have been very active in Indiana, and, as Senator Mitch McConnell said after casting another Republican vote for the measure, “I hope it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs that we need to regain in order to hopefully be in the majority next year.”  

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in NYSPAR v. Bruen should have little immediate impact on Indiana where the rules on carrying loaded guns in public have been much more permissive. This case, however, was the most significant ruling by the highest court on guns since the 2008 opinion in DC v Heller, which said for the first time that the 2nd Amendment established an individual right to own guns, and the 2010 decision in McDonald v Chicago that extended this to the states. 

Thomas decision

Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority decision in Bruen threw out New York’s licensing procedures for carrying loaded guns in public which required the showing of “proper cause”. This was the first time the Supreme Court extended the 2nd Amendment to outside the home. While Thomas did say that “objective” standards can be applied before issuing these licenses, this decision only directly impacts “may issue” licensing procedures in six other states and DC.

More important, however, was the test adopted by Thomas for reviewing gun regulations. The public safety or health concerns of legislatures are no longer considered – only whether text, history and tradition support challenged gun laws. The problem is that Thomas ignores the first thirteen words of text in the 2nd amendment, adopts a questionable definition of “keep and bear arms”, and writes off any history supporting restrictions on carrying guns in public as too old, too new, an “outlier” decision, an unenforced law, or something that didn’t really impact too many people.

Gun violence will continue, as will debates on and challenges to gun policy. Hopefully we can now see more legislative action and analysis of what helps things get better, or worse.

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Paul Helmke
Paul Helmke

Paul Helmke is Professor of Practice at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University in Bloomington. He previously served as mayor of Fort Wayne from 1988-2000 and was President/CEO of the Brady Center/Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence from 2006-2011.