Comedian Amy Schumer is the hot entertainer of the moment, but can that last when she's already regurgitating hoary old ideas that weren't so amusing the first time around?
Specifically, Schumer has teamed up with her cousin, the very un-funny Sen. Charles Schumer, to promote a rewarmed serving of gun control proposals that the lawmaker has been trying to inflict on the American public for years. The hook for the legislative repeat was a lethal shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana, during a showing of Amy Schumer's Trainwreck. The shooter, John Russell Houser, purchased his gun legally after passing a background check that failed to pick up his history of mental illness or arrest for arson. This came after Charleston killer Dylann Roof also legally purchased a weapon after the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) failed to pick up on a drug bust.
"We desperately need to improve the background check system, which helps prevent the adjudicated mentally ill and violent criminals from getting their hands on a dangerous weapon," Schumer (the lawmaker, not the funny one) said in a press release. "That's why I am announcing new legislation that will incentivize states to submit all records into the federal gun database."
This idea for hoovering up and centralizing sensitive information isn't a new one, and it's likely to founder on the rocks of opposition from gun rights activists and mental health professionals alike.
"There's a lot of criticism about denying more people their Second Amendment rights based on mental illness," notes Prof. James Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law and author of Can Gun Control Work?, published in 2002. "Mental health professionals think it will deter people from seeking help and will stigmatize the mentally ill."
"Would we say that anybody who has ever seen a therapist is disqualified from owning a gun?" asks Jacobs, who wonders where you could draw the line.
Individuals might avoid seeking help if they're worried that treatment will end up as an entry in a government database—but so might the family and friends of troubled people who think a loved one needs care, but fear a loss of civil liberties as a result.
People might be even more reticent if they realized just how arbitrary the use of government records can be.
"On one extreme, I've seen at least one case where an applicant was unable to appeal his denial because local police entered an ominous but vague warning in his NICS entry that he was 'dangerous,' and thus he had no way of even knowing what motivated police to enter this record in the first place," notes Jennifer Carlson, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and author of this year'sCitizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. "And on the other extreme, I've come across cases where individuals with repeated domestic violence issues–including documented physical harm–are told they can have 'one more chance' despite–at least in my view–presenting some pretty clear-cut evidence as to their 'danger to self and others.'"
"This level of arbitrariness is a problem," she adds. "And I don't think anyone on either side of the gun debate really has come to terms with how uneven our records are–whether because of poor procedure, lack of resources, or arbitrary decision-making."
Carlson suggests that "if executed properly, the Schumer bill could address some of these issues." But if executed poorly—and the federal government does seem to have a bit of a track record for screwing the pooch—Schumer's proposals could make things worse. "Because these compliance mechanisms fall under administrative procedure," says Carlson, "there is no expectation of due process." That threatens to turn what the funny Schumer describes as "sensible measures and restrictions" into nothing more than collections of increasingly sensitive data with which to be arbitrary.
Of course, all of this accumulated sensitive data, however arbitrarily administered, only affects gun sales if people's names are run through the FBI database. The Schumers allude to that point, ominously warning that "under federal law, private citizens may sell weapons at gun shows, on the internet, or anywhere else they choose without performing background checks on the purchasers, allowing criminals to purchase guns with ease."
Banning such private sales has been a long-term goal of the lawmaking Schumer. That's "probably a good idea," suggests Jacobs, but he acknowledges that it's "very easy to get around" such restrictions on inherently private transactions. Some law-abiding buyers and sellers might be willing to submit to background check requirements, but he concedes that others would not.
How many might fall in the "would not" camp? Just look at the Schumers' own New York. A recent requirement that state residents register their "assault weapons"—semiautomatic firearms that look scary—met with a whopping 5 percent compliance rate. Out of an estimated one million assault weapons in the state, only 44,485 were registered.
Neighboring Connecticut managed to get obedience to a similar requirement up to an underwhelming 15 percent.
The vast majority of gun owners in two states not known as especially friendly to firearms use responded to registration requirements with a collective flipping of the bird. Is there any doubt they'd treat a requirement that they run each transfer of a gun to a friend or neighbor through the federal background check system with equal defiance?
That said, the University of Toronto's Carlson is concerned that "we are quickly becoming a society ruled by the record" in which everything from employment opportunities to freedom of travel is circumscribed by data generated by the "bloated criminal justice system." Reining that system and its databases in would be great, but so long as we have to live with those records and their power over our lives, their administration needs to be vastly improved and made more transparent and accessible. "This is an issue that transcends well beyond the boundaries of the gun debate," she says.
That doesn't seem to be the Schumers' goal, though. Their focus is entirely on collecting ever-more information about us in order to restrict access to firearms.
For his part, Jacobs criticizes "the whole idea that somehow, before the fact, you can identify a mass murderer." He doesn't see much hope in that approach. He also doesn't see the Schumers' latest rehashing of gun control dreams making it through Congress—an assessment with which Carlson agrees.
But we've seen this show before. If history is any guide, the Schumers and their friends will keep coming back with schemes to subject us to the arbitrary dictates of an already bloated criminal justice system. These schemes will, again, stand little hope of preventing the crimes at which they're allegedly targeted—or of being obeyed by the people subject to their dictates.
Amy and Charles really need to work on their material—because this routine is getting very old.
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