Barabak: The ongoing mass shootings reflect the failure of politics

On a sunny July afternoon, James Oliver Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis to a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, near the border with Mexico, with a small arsenal and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

He opened fire on cooks and counter workers, on guests and employees hiding in a storage area, on a mother and her child, on three boys riding bicycles across the parking lot.

Twenty-one people died in what was then the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in US history. I covered the killings for United Press International. Today, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, as it became known, barely makes the top 10.

In the bloody years since, there have been more than 130 mass shootings, according to a Mother Jones database of incidents in which four or more people were killed.

These are decades in which the nation’s gun laws in general have become more permissive, guns have become more readily available, and Washington lawmakers have become significantly less responsive for the majority of Americans, who favor stricter security regulations, such as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

It’s hardly a coincidence.

There have been mass shootings at military bases and gay nightclubs, churches and restaurants, office parks and post offices, college campuses and elementary schools. At a dance hall in Monterey Park on Saturday night and less than 48 hours later at a nursery and farm near Half Moon Bay.

In fact, it is almost easier to name the places where mass shootings take place have not taken place, although this could provide incentive and challenge for a sick person.

“Tragedy upon tragedy,” said the governor of California. Gavin Newsom, who was at a hospital meeting with victims of the Monterey Park shooting when he was briefed on Monday’s shooting. One punch in the stomach followed the next.

Unimaginable, officials said in Half Moon Bay, a small oceanfront oasis about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

But it really isn’t. We wrap ourselves in a kind of mental bubble wrap and argue that such an atrocity could never happen here. But we have long since learned that it can happen anywhere, anytime. None of us are ever really safe once we step foot in the public eye.

News reports in the last 48 hours have almost always pointed out that California has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, implying that somehow they haven’t worked. That is not true.

California’s gun death rate has declined noticeably since the state passed safety laws, while rates have risen in states like Texas and Florida, which are moving in the opposite direction in an apparent competition for which location can be more promiscuous in firearm fetishization have moved .

But California is not, as some might prefer, an island. An assault weapon that is banned in California is available just a short trip across the border at a gun show in Arizona or Nevada.

The solution is uniform federal gun safety laws, but of course that will require bold action from Congress.

Which seems highly unlikely.

After some particularly horrifying mass shootings last summer, all lawmakers could pull off was a little tinkering — expanding background checks for gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21, spurring states to pass so-called red flag laws to keep firearms out of the hands of the dangerous and mentally ill keep away.

It was the first major gun safety law passed by Congress in almost 30 years, and its tenuousness spoke to the recklessness of the moment.

Polls show that most Americans support stricter gun laws, and a sizable majority support sensible measures like establishing a federal database to track firearm sales and preventing people with mental illness from buying guns.

And yet Congress is unmoved, in good part because the pro-gun lobby routinely trumps the gun-safety advocates. People who oppose gun controls are often deeply, uniquely, and perpetually involved in the issue. People who want to end gun violence may also be passionate, but their political involvement tends to be sporadic and their attention spans limited.

Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland, summed up the dynamics in a 2018 interview before many tragedies.

“It’s only when there are mass shootings that the public really pays attention,” said Spitzer, who has written several books on gun policy. “But the mood doesn’t last long. Most people turn their attention back to other things, as does the media, and soon it’s back to business as usual.”

At the same time, lawmakers in general are less reliant on broad support and more reliant on their political bases, as gerrymandering — the deliberate drawing of congressional lines to favor one party over the other — has killed much of the competition between parties.

According to the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, an impartial guide to campaigning and elections, there are 82 swing congressional districts. That’s half the number from 1999.

“The smaller number of swing districts means fewer members need to find balance and support compromise,” wrote the report’s founder, Charlie Cook. In fact, he said, “There are more Republican congressmen at risk of losing a primary than a general election — so they’re constantly looking over the right shoulder.”

And there, ballot ready, are some of the most outspoken opponents of gun safety legislation. Even as the death toll mounts, they remain adamant in their opposition.

For some, a certain number of lives lost is the price of freedom.

For most, that’s too high a price to pay. But until the political dynamics change — until the maneuvering stops and the anti-gun-control vote becomes a liability, rather than a reason lawmakers stay in office — that’s a price our society and countless innocents will continue to pay.

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