Gail Collins: Why are we still going great guns?

The only place background checks are controversial is in the Senate.

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, turns to speak directly to gun violence survivors and activists, during a campaign stop, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Let’s take a look at how well Joe Biden is doing with his gun safety agenda.

We call this gun safety, people, because “gun control” makes a lot of politicians nervous. And really, what the heck? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that eliminating the sale of semi-automatic rifles would make the country more … gun safe.

Banning assault weapons was on Biden’s to-do list, along with universal background checks and a stronger, more forward-looking Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under the leadership of David Chipman.

Well, here we are, less than a year into the administration, and Chipman’s nomination is kaput. Biden hasn’t yet come up with a new name. This is not all that unusual, since congressional gun politics has limited the ATF to only one actual confirmed chief in the last 15 years.

If anyone ever does get to officially head the bureau, perhaps he or she could do something about its weapons-tracing system, which is basically a vast mountain of paperwork, thousands of boxes high. Congress has made it illegal to put the records into a searchable computer database — a change that would make the whole process either efficient or a nefarious “gun registry,” depending on who you’re talking to.

There are a limited number of other things Biden can do on his own. He’s made it harder for folks to acquire “ghost gun” kits that let them build their own weapons at home. And he ordered a survey of weapons-trafficking patterns, which sounds like a great idea except for the part about the beleaguered ATF having to do the work.

Meanwhile Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn. — whose state was, of course, the site of the Sandy Hook school shooting — is trying to rally support for a bill to extend the current background check program to unlicensed sellers at gun shows. Yeah, right now one easy way to buy a gun without having anyone check to see if you have a history of criminal convictions, mental illness or a domestic violence restraining order is to just plunk down some cash at a gun show.

“I may be chasing the white whale, but I’m still in hot pursuit of a deal that can get 60 votes in the Senate,” Murphy told me.

Kudos to him, although the fact that Murphy believes he might have a 50-50 chance of getting a reform that modest through the Senate is still pretty darned depressing.

“Background checks are supported by Democrats, Republicans, gun owners and non-gun owners,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “The only place where they’re controversial is the Senate.”

Well, probably also the Texas Legislature, which recently passed a law liberating its citizens to pack loaded handguns when they’re out in public, without going through the trouble of getting any training or applying for a permit.

“I signed documents that instilled freedom in the Lone Star State,” bragged Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texans are now free to carry a pistol without learning how to use it. One of the most interesting aspects of American gun culture is how totally dissociated it is from any skill standards.

In Texas, a favorite theme for gun proliferation enthusiasts seems to be that it’s part of the anti-abortion movement. “Restoring the right of vulnerable, law-abiding women to carry a handgun in Texas is pro-life,” tweeted state Rep. Matt Schaefer, the lead author of the new law.

Schaefer is possibly the most conservative member of the Legislature’s Republican caucus, which is really saying something. A couple of years ago, when Texas had two mass shootings in a month, he tweeted that “Godless depraved hearts” were the “root of the problem.”

When people try to connect all gun violence with evildoers, consider the toddler in Florida who found a loaded handgun in the family home last month and fatally shot Mom in the head while she was busy on a Zoom call for work.

Or the 2-year-old in Maine who, according to the police, found a loaded Glock on a night stand and shot his sleeping parents. Both, fortunately, survived, as did a 3-month-old baby who was also in the room. In the long saga of little children and loaded pistols, that has to count as a happy ending.

We will stop here to note that in 2020 more than 19,000 Americans died from gun violence — not including the 24,000 who committed suicide with a gun.

Now, doesn’t that seem like a situation that would require at least a very modest show of concern in Congress? Or at least a decent budget for the ATF?

Nah, can’t have anybody keeping efficient track of all those weapons. “The gun lobby and its allies have spent 40 years sabotaging the federal government’s ability to study gun violence, and the results have been deadly,” said Feinblatt, who believes that under the Biden administration, researchers are at least “finally making progress.”

Well, any progress is better than none.

So here we are, watching Murphy heroically trying to round up enough support to keep felons from buying pistols at gun shows. God knows his bill won’t solve the whole problem, but if it passes, we can at least savor the thought that the weapons lobby finally had a bad day.

Gail Collins | The New York Times (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.