America is losing its soul to guns, but our politicians don't seem to care — Mike Kelly

·8 min read

Once again, America is engulfed by another cloud of grief over another mass shooting — this time at an elementary school in Texas where 19 kids and two teachers were mowed down by a young man with a military-style assault rifle that can fire bullets as quickly as you can snap your fingers.

Is this the shock moment that will move this country to change its relationship with guns?

Don’t count on it.

When it comes to guns, we are not a “united” United States. We are a dysfunctional nation — an international embarrassment. Our leaders are scurrying for their protective corners.

Let’s begin with President Joe Biden.

The president addressed the nation late Tuesday for seven minutes, pleading “for God’s sake” to find a way to stop the violence. He was eloquent. He spoke from the heart. This is, after all, a father who knows firsthand the pain of burying a child. “To lose a child,” Biden noted, “is like having a piece of your soul ripped away.”

But here is the key line missing from Biden’s speech: “As president, this is what I am going to do right now.”

“I am sick and tired of it,” Biden said of Tuesday's carnage at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which followed the killings of 10 people and the wounding of three more at a Buffalo grocery 10 days earlier. “We have to act.  And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”

So where is the plan? If this is Joe Biden's moment to embrace as a strong president, where is Joe Biden?

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There was no announcement from Biden of any executive order — the kind of emergency response that presidents have the power to invoke during a crisis.

One possible executive order, for example, is for Biden to ban the sale of military-style assault rifles to civilians for at least six months while the federal government assesses the overall problem.

Another is to impose a one-year waiting period on sales of so-called assault guns to give police and others the opportunity to examine why someone might want to purchase such a firearm.

Yet another is a nationwide ban on large capacity magazines that allow mass killers to keep firing military-style assault rifles without reloading.

And finally, how about a ban on the sale of military-style body armor to civilians?

The killer who sprayed bullets into the Buffalo grocery wore the kind of body armor that is issued to cops and the U.S. military. In Buffalo, the killer's body armor protected him well enough to prevent a security guard from shooting him and stopping his killing spree. In Texas, the shooter was wearing a plate carrier but not ballistic armor.

Biden may be thinking about such executive orders. But you’d never know it from his speech to the nation. Biden didn’t even issue a call for new legislation. He merely offered a vague historical footnote — that the 10-year federal ban on assault rifles worked well before it expired in 2004, when mass shootings increased dramatically in America, especially with those sorts of guns.

Biden’s “for God’s sake” plea typified the next-day response from politicians — especially Democrats — that we often hear after a mass shooting. It was full of emotional fireworks but willfully short on specific solutions. It sounded more like a surrender speech than a call to action.

Democrats don’t like to hear this. But the party that lost a president — John F. Kennedy — and a major presidential candidate — Robert F. Kennedy — to gun violence has been shuddering for more than 30 years over the prospect of trying to win elections by taking a strong stand in favor of gun control. Far too often, when it comes to gun control, Democrats are wimps.

The historical roots of this fear date back to the early 1990s in New Jersey with then-Gov. James Florio’s ban on assault rifles.

At the time, Florio’s crackdown on military-style, semi-automatic firearms hardly seemed controversial or even courageous. It seemed smart and practical.

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As more drug gangs turned to high-tech, rapid-firing, assault-style weaponry, Florio’s call for a widespread ban came off as the kind of bipartisan, anti-crime strategy that Democrats and Republicans were once known for.

Who would object? After all, you don’t need a rapid-firing gun designed for the battlefield to hunt deer. Certainly, New Jersey police feared they would be outgunned by gangs equipped with the kinds of weapons that were designed for the Marines or the Army’s Delta Force.

What happened next set the tone for Democratic strategy for years.

The National Rifle Association put Florio in its election target hairs. Claiming that Florio had stepped over a constitutional line by banning civilians from buying so-called assault rifles, the gun lobby poured money and volunteers into New Jersey. “Flush Florio” became the battle cry.

And it worked. Yes, Florio had other problems with voters — namely his unpopular plan to increase taxes to pay for improved schools. But Florio’s ban on assault firearms stirred Republican activists’ juices in ways that were surprising even to tepid, martini-sipping Jersey Republicans.

In 1991, Republicans won control of the New Jersey state Legislature for the first time in 20 years. In 1993, Republicans kicked Florio out of the governor’s mansion. His one term, which began with so much hope for progressive change for education, housing and race relations, ended in embarrassment. Democrats were on the run.

A year later, in Washington, D.C., Republicans pulled off a similar political coup — this time sweeping to control of both houses of Congress.

The so-called “Republican Revolution” of 1994 became a historical benchmark for modern politics that set the tone for the Tea Party and the emergence of Donald Trump. But what helped propel Republicans across the finish line in 1994 — and, most notably, win control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 42 years — was passage of the federal assault weapons ban only two months before Election Day.

A woman cries as she leave the Uvalde Civic Center following a shooting earlier in the day at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
A woman cries as she leave the Uvalde Civic Center following a shooting earlier in the day at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.

When the ban was enacted in September 1994 and quickly signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the new law seemed to be a practical, anti-crime bill, aimed at taking high-powered, military-style weapons out of the hands of criminals. Just like New Jersey's law.

Once again, the gun lobby turned the issue into a question of constitutional rights for ordinary, law-abiding civilians who felt they should be allowed to own any kind of gun they wanted. The message: Liberal Democrats want to take away your guns.

As with New Jersey and Florio, other issues emerged in the 1994 congressional elections — notably, welfare reform. But the federal assault weapons ban again galvanized the increasingly rural and conservative Republican base.

Fast-forward to 2015. Mass shootings were increasing. Democrats again faced pressure to do something.

President Barack Obama was unable to move the Republican-dominated Congress to pass meaningful gun control measures. So why not sign several executive orders? Among the suggestions were a call for national background checks of all gun buyers and a ban on firearms sales at gun shows.

Gun control advocates from New Jersey even journeyed to the White House to plead the cause. What emerged was a sign of the politically divided times.

Democratic strategists privately told gun control advocates that they did not want to invoke presidential executive orders before the 2016 elections. Notably, they did not want to energize the NRA and its Republican base as Hillary Clinton prepared to run for president.

That strategy worked out real well, didn’t it?

Not only did Clinton lose to the NRA-backed Donald Trump, but meaningful gun control measures were swept back into the political corner.

Democrats — and notably, President Biden — now have a chance to take a stand. But they know the political risks.

Yes, the midterms are coming — with Democrats in many close races. And, yes, any attempt at tough control will surely stir the Republican hornet’s nest. 

But as Biden said on Tuesday, “Enough is enough.”

America clearly faces an emergency. Already this year, the most sophisticated, richest nation on the planet has endured 213 mass shootings — more than one a day. At that rate, we should expect at least six more mass shootings by the end of the Memorial Day weekend, maybe more.

The alleged killers in Texas and Buffalo — both 18 — were not old enough to buy beer or whiskey. But they were old enough to buy the tools that allowed them to quickly kill and wound dozens of people.

If that simple fact isn't evidence of a crisis, what is?

America is losing its soul.

Do our politicians care? 

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, the author of three, critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and film documentary producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @mikekellycolumn 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Texas shooting: Joe Biden can change US gun control laws