Skip to main content

Did we learn nothing from Newtown?

By Richard J. Davis, Special to CNN
March 28, 2013 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Davis: Many thought massacre of 20 children, six adults would change gun debate
  • He says we're seeing a predictable pattern in which gun lobby blocks popular legislation
  • Supreme Court decision on Second Amendment allows reasonable gun regulation, he says
  • Davis: Congress must create system of universal background checks for gun purchasers

Editor's note: Richard Davis served as the assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement and operations during the Carter administration. He currently practices law in New York.

(CNN) -- Many people thought that the massacre of 20 young school children and six educators by a gunman wielding an assault weapon would change the terms of the debate over firearms regulation.

It appears that they were wrong.

Not only does it now seem that Congress will not reinstate the assault weapons ban, but it also appears unlikely to place restrictions on the size of magazines so as to reduce the number of bullets that can be fired before reloading is required.

Richard Davis
Richard Davis

For opponents of these measures, such a result would be vindication of what they argue is the absolute right to bear arms set forth in the Second Amendment.

Such arguments ignore the fact that in its 2008 decision recognizing that the Second Amendment created a personal right to bear arms unrelated to serving in a militia, the Supreme Court also recognized the permissibility of "reasonable" restrictions on that right, including potentially prohibiting carrying "dangerous and unusual weapons."

For others, however, a legislative outcome that includes neither an assault weapons ban nor restrictions on magazines is just more of the same -- a powerful lobby using aggressive tactics to persuade Congress to ignore majority support for these measures. I must say, however, that if this turns out to be the result, I will be sad but hardly shocked.

Gun bill filibuster?

In 1978, while serving as the Treasury official overseeing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, we proposed regulations that would have created a centralized database of firearms transactions (which would not have included the names of individual retail purchasers). The purpose of such a database was to allow speedier tracing of firearms used in crimes and to allow the ATF to analyze the flow of firearms to particular dealers, which would suggest which dealers were diverting firearms to the illegal market.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Even though these proposals would have had no effect on anyone's right to own any firearm, the NRA mounted a campaign against them, and Congress voted to prohibit any such database from ever being established, a prohibition that remains in effect today. During the debate over these regulations, I heard from some members of Congress that while the proposals made sense, politics precluded them from expressing support. Thirty years later, it seems little has changed.

So given this state of play, what should be the focus of those who believe that added regulations of firearms would help save lives?

Despite emotions, little happens legislatively after mass shootings

Obviously, a first step is to continue to make the case for an assault weapons ban and limitations on the size of magazines. The issue, after all, should be not whether such steps avoid all mass shootings, but whether they could save some lives. Would it not have been worth it even if some of those murdered in Newtown could have survived because the shooter did not have an assault weapon? But there are other things that can and should be done:

1. We need to work to ensure that Congress at least finally creates a system of universal background checks for all firearms purchasers. Many people believe such a system exists today; it does not. Along with such a system, we need to improve the databases used in connection with such checks.

Filibuster on the horizon
Jim Carrey takes on gun lobby

2. Focus should be placed on what is happening in particular states. For example, states such as New York and Colorado have made meaningful changes in gun laws in response to the spate of recent mass shootings, and other states have meaningful restrictions on firearms possession. It is true, however, that attitudes toward guns are different in different regions of the country.

If certain states choose to have fewer firearms regulations, those choices should not be allowed to interfere with the policy decisions of those states that decide that a safer society requires more firearms regulations and fewer guns on the streets. Yet this is precisely what happens now where guns sold in low- or no-regulation states end up on the streets of those cities and states with far stricter regulation.

Thus, we need -- as is being proposed -- to toughen the laws on "straw man" purchases and firearms trafficking and to make it a federal crime to transport a gun into a state where possession of that gun would be illegal.

3. Congressionally imposed restrictions placed on ATF's ability to enforce existing laws should be removed. This includes ending the ban on the creation of a centralized firearms transaction database, but also ending restrictions like the ban on ATF's ability to require gun dealers to conduct annual inventories to determine whether firearms have been lost or stolen. (Unfortunately we are instead seeing moves to make these kinds of restrictions permanent.) Opponents of new firearms regulations often argue that existing laws should be enforced before we pass new ones. Unfortunately, Congress is too often pressed to impose rules that make such enforcement less effective.

Opinion: More gun mayhem, and yet we wait for action

In the end, a sensible approach to gun violence would, among other non-law enforcement steps, include prohibitions directed at assault-type weapons, more regulation of handguns, less regulation of traditional long guns and working to make sure that federal, state and local law enforcement have the tools to enforce the laws relating to firearms. Unfortunately, logic does not always operate when the topic is guns.

What are your views on gun control? Share your thoughts

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT