Democrats pass controversial gun control legislation.

Will it reduce gun violence? Or harm law-abiding citizens?
Isaac Saul Mar 15, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

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We’re covering the two gun control bills that were passed by Democrats in the House last week. Plus, a question from a reader in Brooklyn about Universal Basic Income and a “Have a nice day” section that gave me some hope.

Photo: Jay Baker

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the southern border to help process migrants amidst a worsening crisis (NPR). More than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children are now in short-term holding facilities. (CBS News)
  2. U.S. states across the country are continuing to find previously unreported deaths related to COVID-19, calling into question the ability of states to reliably track a death toll that exceeded 530,000 nationally this week. (The Wall Street Journal)
  3. Hundreds of demonstrators marched across Louisville, Kentucky, and cities across the U.S. this weekend to commemorate the one year anniversary of Breonna Taylor being killed by police. (ABC News)
  4. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are doing a seven-state, multi-week tour to celebrate and sell the passage of their $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Biden is said to be wary of making the same mistakes he and the Obama administration made in 2009, when they didn’t invest the time to promote their response to the 2008 financial crisis to the public. (Axios)
  5. President Biden penned a joint op-ed in The Washington Post with Narendra Modi (prime minister of India), Scott Morrison (prime minister of Australia) and Yoshihide Suga (prime minister of Japan). In the rare op-ed, “The Quad” made a public commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, which was seen by many as a direct challenge to the growing severity of China’s clampdown in the region. (The Washington Post, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Gun control. Last week, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed two gun control bills to expand background checks for gun purchases.

The first bill, H.R. 8 (the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021), passed by a 227 to 203 vote, with eight Republicans supporting the bill and one Democrat voting against it. This bill would require gun buyers to be vetted for nearly every private sale of guns online and at gun shows, while also making it illegal to give guns to friends or family members without conducting background checks and record-keeping. Federal laws currently require background checks for sales by federally licensed dealers, while some states have additional regulations.

The second bill, H.R. 1466 (the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021), passed by a 219-210 vote, with two Republicans voting for the bill and two Democrats voting against it. This bill would extend the time a gun sale can be delayed while waiting for a background check from three days to 10 days. In essence, it gives the National Instant Criminal Background Check System one more week to complete a query on a prospective gun buyer. The current system was blamed in 2015 for allowing Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston, SC, to take a gun home after his background check did not return results within three days. Roof should have been prohibited from buying a gun because of a prior drug arrest.

Both bills passed the House in 2019 before being blocked by Republicans in the Senate, where pundits believe they once again have poor odds of reaching the 60-vote threshold to become law.


What the left is saying.

The left supports the measures and claims we will save lives and reduce the amount of gun violence every year by instituting them.

The Washington Post editorial board said the bills will “close loopholes long known to let killers slip through.”

“The bill aimed at the so-called gun-show loophole would require unlicensed and private sellers to conduct a federal review for red flags such as a criminal record or a history of mental illness,” the board wrote. “That means online sales, private sales and, yes, gun-show sales must go through the same process as in-person sales from licensed dealers — though loans for hunting and other activities, as well as gifts by family members, would be exempted. Eight people including the perpetrator died and 25 were injured in a West Texas shooting in 2019; the shooter had purchased his rifle in a person-to-person sale after failing a federal background check.

“The bill addressing the ‘Charleston loophole’ would extend the time the FBI has to conduct a background check from the current three days to 10,” it added. “Buyers are able to evade review simply because review takes too long. White supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015; a pending felony charge didn’t prevent him from getting a gun because the FBI had missed its window. These are only two stories among many of weapons ending up in the hands of those who aren’t supposed to have them, and these are only two gaps that need plugging in a system that has enabled so many lives needlessly to be lost.”

In Vox, Gabby Birenbaum said the bills “would represent the first significant federal gun control law in more than 25 years.”

“Further legislation, such as gun licensing or a registry, is likely needed to make a significant dent in the US’s staggering gun violence statistics, but universal background checks are an important first step,” she wrote. “The issue polls extremely well — a Gallup poll from 2018 found that 92 percent of respondents favored universal background checks. Polling from Everytown and the gun control advocacy and research organization Giffords conducted after the 2020 election found that 93 percent of Americans want universal background checks — including ‘strong’ support from 64 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of gun owners.”

In The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu said that absent a Republican change in heart, or abolishing the filibuster, “all gun legislation will be doomed—not just background checks but the rest of the proposals for Congress that President Biden ran on, including a new assault weapons ban, a ban on online gun and parts sales, and the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits over the use of their guns in criminal activity.

“The gun problem has become unfathomably large in the quarter-century since [the 1990s],” he added. “There are 400 million guns in this country, and the pandemic has done little to disrupt American gun culture—background-checked gun purchases were up 93 percent from March through July last year compared to the same period the year before. We will leave the crisis with many more guns and a revived libertarian streak within a conservative movement that began the year by storming Congress.”


What the right is saying.

The right opposes the bill, contending that it will impose burdens on law-abiding citizens, do little to address how guns get into the hands of criminals and is the first step toward a national registry that the federal government could later use to take guns from gun owners.

In her Substack newsletter, former National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch said the bill was “predicated upon the false premise that a ‘loophole’ in Charleston” allowed the mass shooting.

“The law is redundant,” she wrote. “We know this law is redundant due to the presence of penalty on illegal transfers and out-state transport. Contrary to anti-Second Amendment activists’ long-repeated claim that 40% of gun sales were performed without background checks, WaPo rated this as false. Crime isn’t driven by criminals who obtain guns via legal private transfers. The majority (90%) of criminals do not obtain their firearms from a retail source. From BJS:

An estimated 287,400 prisoners had possessed a firearm during their offense. Among these, more than half (56%) had either stolen it (6%), found it at the scene of the crime (7%), or obtained it off the street or from the underground market (43%). Most of the remainder (25%) had obtained it from a family member or friend, or as a gift. Seven percent had purchased it under their own name from a licensed firearm dealer.

“Assuming that ‘universal background checks’ work, to make them work there must be a ‘universal’ registration of all firearms — a firearm registry,” she added. “The very government that the left called ‘literally Hitler’ these past four years would know about every single firearm in your possession. But that’s the thing, UBCs don’t work. California already showed us that.”

In The Washington Examiner, Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Kat Cammack (R-FL) said the bill “would criminalize common exchanges of firearms.”

“This bill would strip away the rights of millions of people while doing nothing at all to reduce gun violence,” they wrote. “Almost 70% of prisoners who used a gun to commit crimes acquired firearms from black-market sources, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There is no indication that criminals will suddenly decide to follow the law if this bill is passed. All this bill will really do is advance the Left’s agenda to criminalize gun ownership, increase burdensome regulations, establish a gun registry, and set the stage for gun seizures.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “Democrats are betting that background checks are popular, but the result in practice may be to spur more gun sales.”

“In 2020 the National Instant Criminal Background Check System reported 21 million background checks, which translates to 8.4 million new gun owners. That’s a record. There were an estimated 2.9 million new gun buyers in 2019, and the previous record was 3.4 million in 2016. More buyers are women and minorities. ‘Forty percent of 2020’s buyers were women and the biggest increase of any demographic category was among African Americans, who bought guns at a rate of 58 percent greater than in 2019,’ says the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which tracks the data.”


My take.

I’ve said before and will say again that I’m to the right of most people I know on gun control issues. In my opinion, the left has some major blind spots when it comes to gun control, and their policy solutions in this field tend to have the least reliance on data and the least nuance.

First, guns are not always used for crime or by the “bad guys.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates guns are used in between 500,000 and three million self-defense cases per year, far more than the number of deaths or injuries attributed to firearm use (in 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC). As most conservatives are quick to cite, more than 60% of those 39,000 deaths are suicides, which is not meant to be a comforting statistic so much as it’s meant to point out that someone doing harm to another person with a gun is less common than a glance at the numbers might suggest.

Second is that the evidence of universal background checks’ effectiveness on reducing gun violence is limited. As German Lopez noted in a Vox piece, “several studies in the past few years ‘found that universal background checks, enacted at the state level, have a limited effect’ on firearm homicide and suicide rates.” To make it effective, states need a national registry or firearm licensing system to accompany the background checks.

Third is that we have much of what we need on the books right now to reduce the rate of gun violence in the U.S. Dana Loesch’s antagonistic and intentionally divisive personality makes me hesitant to cite her, but she laid this out well in her newsletter. The short version is that, thanks to a bunch of bureaucratic red tape and bad policy, the FBI doesn’t access a valuable chunk of its criminal database to expedite searches and checks on prospective gun buyers. This is probably how Dylann Roof was able to get a gun before committing the mass murder of Black parishioners in South Carolina. Making these searches more efficient is probably more helpful than expanding the time period for them to take place from three to ten days.

The Wall Street Journal also noted that in March of 2018, Congress “tucked a provision in a spending bill signed by then-President Donald Trump to strengthen compliance with the national background check system for buying firearms. The measure added incentives for states and federal agencies, including the military, to submit criminal-conviction records to the system. Federal law requires agencies to submit relevant records, but at the state level, compliance is voluntary unless mandated by state law or federal funding requirements.”

In other words: Until 2018, and still today, we continue to lack complete data and have poor compliance with the very systems already in place that are supposed to track someone’s criminal history and liability as a gun owner. Worse, thanks in large part to the gun lobby, we also have incomplete and muddled data on the impact of legislation around guns — because collecting the data on gun violence and ownership is fought tooth and nail at every turn.

All this being said, the content of this bill is being willfully ignored by many folks on the right. In their Washington Examiner piece, Reps. Cammack and Boebert wrote that H.R. 8 “would make it illegal for a farmer to lend a rifle to a neighbor trying to protect his cattle from wolves, for a homeowner to let her neighbor borrow a firearm following a break-in, for a collector to donate a historic rifle to a museum, and for parents to gift a gun to their child.”

These assertions are all directly contradicted by the actual text of the bill, which states unequivocally that transfer prohibitions “shall not apply to… a transfer or exchange (which, for purposes of this subsection, means an in-kind transfer of a firearm of the same type or value) that is a loan or bona fide gift between spouses, between domestic partners, between parents and their children, including step-parents and their step-children, between siblings, between aunts or uncles and their nieces or nephews, or between grandparents and their grandchildren,if the transferor has no reason to believe that the transferee will use or intends to use the firearm in a crime or is prohibited from possessing firearms under State or Federal law.”

It similarly allows exemptions for transfers “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” or “while reasonably necessary for the purposes of hunting, trapping, pest control on a farm or ranch, or fishing,” among others. The contradiction was so stark that I did something I almost never do: I actually submitted correction requests to both The Washington Examiner and The Wall Street Journal, which published similar language in their coverage of the bill (I’ll keep you posted on how that goes -- perhaps I’m missing something!).

Furthermore, fears of the bill being used to create a national registry are directly contradicted  by the fact that “the legislation explicitly prohibits the creation of a national registry.”

All this is to say, I think both sides are overplaying their hands here. The upside of how much good this bill will do, absent other measures, looks ambiguous to me at best. What we really need is better FBI vetting and more data sharing incentives like the ones tucked into the 2018 spending bill. That being said, it is the kind of legislation polling suggests the vast majority of Americans want, and even if it would stop — say — a few of the horrific mass shootings that occur every year, that’s a net positive.

Mostly, I say that because the dangers and restrictions these bills pose to legal gun owners are minimal, especially given the explicit carve-outs I just explained above. Around 90% of background checks are completed in minutes and 97% are done within three days, so despite the facts around the Roof case, we’re really solving for a minority of gun sales that have outsized potential to be dangerous to the public. I think that’s a perfectly good thing for the government to be trying to solve, even if this may be an imperfect way of doing it. I’m encouraged by the Republican sponsors on H.R. 8 and hope that there are enough Republican senators willing to attempt to transcend the culture wars over gun rights to address this legislation thoughtfully. At the bare minimum, given the support for more expansive background checks and the horrific nature of so much of the gun violence in America, they owe it to the public to offer some changes to the bill if they don’t like the current draft.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Kind of a random theoretical thought from someone who likes to write alternate history and speculative fiction: do you think this bill [the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package] and the other COVID relief bills pave the way for an eventual Universal Basic Income? Do you see some sort of UBI ever being on the horizon?

— Michael, Brooklyn, NY

Tangle: I think this bill is the closest we’ll get for decades. I still think it’s being understated what exactly the impact of this bill will be, both to our national debt, an increase in taxes to pay for it, and its potential to reduce poverty (and thus the negative things that come along with poverty).

I’m planning to write more about the “pork” in the latest bill, but the Child Tax Credit reforms are not something I’d call pork. They are, in practicality, a Universal Basic Income for most parents in the United States. And while it may be more limited than UBI experiments or legislation outside the U.S., I think this credit will be lasting and hugely impactful here in the states— especially for low-income families. I’ve plugged it before, but The Washington Post child tax calculator is a fascinating tool. Here are a few scenarios I plugged in:

A married couple with a gross income of $100,000, one child under the age of six and one between six and 16 years old: You will likely get $550 per month from July to December, plus $3,300 when you file your 2021 taxes, for a total Child Tax Credit of $6,600.

A single parent with a gross income of $80,000, two children under the age of six: You will likely get $579 per month from July to December, plus $3,474 when you file your 2021 taxes, for a total Child Tax Credit of $6,948.

A married couple with a gross income of $40,000, two children under the age of six and one between six and 16 years old: You will likely get $850 per month from July to December, plus $5,100 when you file your 2021 taxes, for a total Child Tax Credit of $10,200.

Basically: I think we just got something approaching a UBI, even though progressives seem to be obsessing over what Biden didn’t do while Republicans have focused mostly on the “blue state bailouts.” Mickey Kaus raised some interesting questions about the wisdom of this Child Tax Credit reform, including some studies on the dangers of providing guaranteed income for non-working families, and the possibility that some kids may grow up in communities where “nobody is doing formal work,” as Matthew Yglesias put it.


A story that matters.

Tim Weber, a superintendent in Wyoming, Ohio, appears to have accomplished the impossible: getting his students back to school without tearing the local community apart. Weber, who has benefited from an affluent district and small class sizes, took some unconventional approaches to reopening schools. Namely, he addressed parental concerns one-on-one via phone calls and emails while avoiding public forums, and moved slowly from hybrid learning to full-time in-person classes. He also has a team of pediatricians, county health officials and nurses that meets every Tuesday morning to determine the safety of keeping kids in school for the following week. (The Wall Street Journal)


Numbers.

  • 1 in 5. The number of renters who are behind on rent, according to Census Bureau Data.
  • 49%. The percentage of Republican men who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.*
  • 41%. The percentage of all Republicans who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
  • 6%.The percentage of Democratic men who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
  • 25%. The percentage of Black respondents who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
  • 28%.The percentage of white respondents who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
  • 37%. The percentage of Latino respondents who say they won’t choose to be vaccinated when they are allowed, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
*Interviews were conducted among 1,082 registered voters between March 3-8th, with a +/-3.6 margin of error

Don’t forget…

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Have a nice day.

In The New York Times, economics reporter Neil Irwin says for the first time in his career he’s feeling optimistic about the future of the economy. Irwin is known in the industry (and amongst reporters) as being quite the curmudgeon about the U.S. economy, so his piece caught my eye. He lists 17 reasons why he’s optimistic. Irwin says “a mild recession was followed by a weak recovery followed by a financial crisis followed by another weak recovery followed by a pandemic-induced collapse. A couple of good years right before the pandemic aside, it has been two decades of overwhelming inequality and underwhelming growth — an economy in which a persistently weak job market has left vast human potential untapped, helping fuel social and political dysfunction… But strange as it may seem in this time of pandemic, I’m starting to get optimistic.” You can find his 17 reasons here.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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