opinion | Senate Gun Bill Is Terrible

Protesters call for a gun-law reform march in downtown St. Louis on June 11.


Jack Meier / The Associated Press

When mass shootings like those of Uvalde happen, a rallying cry emerges for the Congress to do anything to prevent such tragedies in the future. On Tuesday, senators introduced the bipartisan Safe Communities Act—their attempt to do something. But when your only rallying cry is to do something, the things you do may be worse than the status quo. The Bipartisan Safe Communities Act is a formidable bill, and in its current form, it must be defeated by a bipartisan political coalition of Congress.

Liberals should hate the bill because most of its gun-control provisions contradict their criminal-justice reform agenda. The law expands the categories of people for whom it is illegal to sell a gun or ammunition to include anyone convicted of a crime as a juvenile. This would trap many people because the modern definition of “crime” is extraordinarily broad and includes crimes that are not particularly serious. The bill also replaces a federal ban on selling firearms to people who have unintentionally been committed to a mental institution. While it excludes involuntary commitments before the age of 16, the bill significantly strengthens enforcement of the prohibition against those who commit involuntarily between 16 and 18.

Before we make it impossible for children to lead normal adult lives, we must be vigilant. As liberals often point out (especially when the death penalty is involved), children and adolescents lack maturity and impulse control. If the bill becomes law, a 12-year-old in a car may find that he may never be allowed to buy a gun or ammunition. While liberals can’t cry from the idea that fewer people are capable of owning guns, they should be concerned. The ban on guns for the young indiscretion means these teens will become unemployed as adults in many security, law-enforcement and military positions that require firearms to be possessed. And this ban will affect them, no matter how long their juvenile delinquents have been.

The gun ban would result in significant racial and socioeconomic disparities. Wealthy communities will find ways around gun bans for their children: stronger pretrial diversion programs that don’t result in technical convictions, obtaining pardons through the political process, and hiring lawyers to eliminate convicts. In poor communities, children would be forced to take only those pleas that would change their future forever. The same goes on the mental-health side: Wealthy parents may seek voluntary treatment for their children, which may cause poor families to seek involuntary commitment. The bill increases the maximum prison term for illegal firearm possession from 10 years to 15 years, and these regulatory offenses – as liberals often complain – disproportionately affect poor and minority communities.

Conservatives and gun owners should also hate the bill. Gun owners who have committed juvenile delinquent crimes may find that they are no longer able to purchase firearms or ammunition. There are also strange technical flaws in the bill. It prohibits the sale of guns and ammunition to people convicted of juvenile crimes, but it doesn’t explicitly ban possession—a loophole that someone would later shout to shut down. For adults with an involuntary commitment before age 16, the opposite is true: The bill allows firearms to be sold, but it does not reduce possession of a firearm.

The most important provision in the bill is a ban on the possession of a firearm by people convicted of a violent crime of misdemeanor misdemeanor against a dating partner – closing the “boyfriend loophole”. But the senators who negotiated the bill apparently couldn’t agree on the definition of a dating partner. They define a “dating relationship” as “a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.” But relationships come in all forms, and this definition offers little guidance. Senators provided three criteria for consideration: (1) the length of the relationship, (2) the nature of the relationship, and (3) the frequency and type of interactions between the people involved in the relationship. This means that an “ongoing serious relationship” will be some function of the amount of dates, length of time, and physical intimacy. But these ambiguous factors do not provide proper information and are susceptible to inconsistent application.

By failing to adequately define a “dating relationship,” Congress is effectively posing the important question of who falls under this restriction. To whom it is handing the difficult details remains to be determined. Perhaps it would be the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has regulatory authority over firearms. Or the courts can decide as they settle cases. Either way, Congress has again delegated its responsibility to define crimes to unelected bureaucrats and judges.

Unless a specific definition exists, it is unclear how the federal government would enforce this restriction. Let’s say a criminal record check indicates that a potential buyer committed assault or battery. what next? Maybe the trial record will show that the defendant was in a relationship with the complaining witness. Or maybe it won’t. If such information is available, how should the examiner assess the relationship? Available records will likely not provide an accurate description of the relationship. Even if they do, the examiner still has to decide whether the relationship was serious enough to trigger the gun’s incapacitation. The Senate agreement feeds bureaucratic wolves to many potential gun owners.

The passage of the bipartisan Safe Communities Act is likely as members of Congress feel enormous pressure to do something. But it is not a good Bill, and it deserves further deliberation and rectification. The job of the Senate is to help draft good laws by refrigerating the passion of the moment. Right now, it’s failing.

Mr. Leader Antonin is an assistant professor at Scalia Law School.

Wonder Land: Joe Biden prefers to talk about racism and guns rather than face the real problem. Images: AFP / Getty Images / Reuters / Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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