Editorial: #NeverAgain and the tipping point

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 25, 2018

Do Russian trolls feed the divisive notion that “they’re coming for our guns” every time a mass shooting reopens the U.S. gun debate? Maybe the single-minded focus of the National Rifle Association is sufficient to drive this fear.

Either way, it’s time for Congress to listen to a new generation and take action toward keeping powerful, semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of deranged individuals. Somehow, while ensuring that law-abiding citizens can keep their guns and continue to buy more, the United States must tighten its laws to protect the public from mass shootings. There are many possibilities: Improve and expand the background-check system. Step up punishment for possessing and dealing in stolen guns. Crack down on straw sales. Pass an outright ban on bump stocks. Impose a ban or age limit on the sale of assault-style semiautomatic weapons. And improve access to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Gun enthusiasts will argue about the term, “assault.” But surely everyone can agree that allowing an troubled teen like Nikolaz Cruz to legally purchase an AR-15-style rifle reveals dangerous faults in our system. He killed 17 students at a Florida high school and spurred survivors to launch the #NeverAgain movement demanding change in gun laws. Earlier mass shootings at schools, churches and night clubs led to similar calls for action that ultimately were ignored. This incident feels different, though. The NRA line about  only “elites” wanting change is a misfire. A new generation weary of mass killings and school lockdowns is pushing the gun debate toward the tipping point.

Nothing lasts forever, not even the powerful grip of the NRA and the gun industry. Once upon a time, for example, the idea that North Carolina might increase its tobacco tax was anathema — declared an impossibility because of the tobacco industry’s wealth and might. But mounting deaths change things. Who would have imagined years ago that we’d now see messages about the addictive nature and danger of cigarettes — paid for by the very industry that produces them?

Gun regulations and mental-illness treatment are more nuanced issues than people positioned at the extremes are willing to admit. There is legitimate doubt that this Congress has the time or ability to take action before the November elections. Guns, therefore, will be a critical campaign issue. Facing a hostile audience last week, NRA-backed Sen. Marco Rubio was willing to say legislators should be allowed to change their minds. But Rubio is not running this year. Voters need to hear 2018 candidates stake out their positions. Will they allow the carnage to go on? Or will candidates pledge action and agree, #NeverAgain?