Robert Gehrke: Preventing mass shootings will require action from Republican lawmakers, but don’t hold your breath

(Eliza Earle | The New York Times) Safety officials help people outside of the Boulder King Soopers grocery store after a shooting that killed multiple people in Boulder, Colo., on Monday, March 22, 2021.

A pair of violent rampages in less than a week — first, the mass shootings in Atlanta and then, on Monday, the massacre at a Boulder, Colo., grocery store — have once again thrust the issue of gun violence into our national conversation and set in motion the predictable cycle of futility.

First, there’s the immediate anguish and anger, the outpouring of condolences. Flags are lowered, as they were in Utah on Tuesday, and then the focus turns to calls for action that quickly devolve into the same tired partisan arguments and petty bickering before fading into indifference.

Then another shooter inevitably kills more people and it all starts over. Given the evenly divided Senate in Washington and the pro-gun Republican grip on the Legislature here at home, there’s no reason to believe the blood of 18 people killed in the two attacks will shock lawmakers enough to take meaningful action.

The challenge is that the proposals on the table are far from perfect. Colorado, for example, has a red-flag law intended to take guns from people in crisis, and had a ban on assault weapons until a judge struck down the law last week, an action celebrated by the NRA.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Neither stopped the massacre in Boulder; neither will stop every future mass shooting. That doesn’t mean the logical conclusion is to give up.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Rep. John Curtis said he, like all Americans, was saddened by the shooting in Colorado and prompted to consider how to stop acts of violence.

“Unfortunately, many politicians jump to their predictable corners and talking points,” the Utah Republican said. “Today, I call on my colleagues to take a fact-based approach in our responsibility to be part of the solution.”

It’s a pleasant sentiment, except that the inaction in Congress has not been a failure of both sides — it has been a failure of one side to get solutions passed into law, and a success of the other side in obstructing the process.

Republicans need to take some ownership and accountability in this process. If the Democrats’ proposals don’t work, offer a better solution, not just what the National Rifle Association wants.

The same holds true for state lawmakers. The Utah Legislature deserves credit for measures aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of domestic violence perpetrators and to address suicide by firearms, both more frequent factors in gun deaths than mass shootings. And the SafeUT phone app gives school kids a way to report threats of violence.

However, attempts to pass a red-flag law recommended by a task force aimed at preventing school shootings stalled for years until the sponsor, who endured relentless attacks, gave up on the bill.

Curtis is correct, though, when he says state and federal lawmakers should take a “fact-based approach in our responsibility to be part of the solution.”

A 2012 report in the American Journal of Public Health called for a new, holistic approach to research on the causes of mass shootings. In 2020, the Utah Legislature overwhelmingly passed HB340, commissioning a study on rampage violence. Then the pandemic hit and the money for the study was taken away and not restored this session.

Reviving that research to inform data-driven solutions is where local efforts should start, and they should work to get it done before it’s too late.

Our most notorious mass shooting in Utah took place at Trolley Square in 2007, when a gunman killed five people and wounded four others. While, according to the Gun Violence Archive, Utah has seen 55 shootings with multiple fatalities, claiming 128 victims in the past seven years, those events have tended to be family or domestic slayings or drug crimes, not random killings.

So we’ve been lucky. But we’re not special. In recent years, we have seen mass-casualty gun rampages in Nevada and Arizona and several in Colorado — and it’s only a matter of time before another one happens here.

When it does, will Utah’s state and federal lawmakers be able to look the victims’ families in the face and tell them they did everything they could to save lives? Or will partisan intransigence facilitate the unthinkable?

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