Politics & Policy

Chris Sununu Isn’t Panicking on Gun Control

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu in Providence, R.I., July 13, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The Granite State governor vetoed three bills that would have trounced the state’s constitution and done nothing to stop mass shootings.

After the El Paso and Dayton shootings, most Republican politicians broke for the tall grass. There was talk of a wholesale collapse of GOP support for gun rights in the Senate, and President Trump promised to support “meaningful” changes in federal gun policy. There was little discussion of whether these would actually work to decrease the number of mass killings.

But Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, didn’t join the call for retreat even though the state leans left. Every member of Congress from New Hampshire is a Democrat, the state has voted Democratic for president in the last three elections, and Sununu himself won reelection last November with only 53 percent of the vote.

Nonetheless, Sununu vetoed three gun-control bills sent to him by the Democratic legislature. While proponents declared they were merely “commonsense” curbs on the abuse of guns, Sununu said they were an infringement on the constitutional rights of state residents and noted that similar measures had been tried elsewhere and done nothing to stop mass shootings.

The three bills that Sununu vetoed would have required background checks for virtually all commercial firearms sales or transfers, even to relatives; mandated a three-day waiting period for the purchase and delivery of a firearm; and prohibited any carrying of a firearm on school property.

“New Hampshire is one of the safest states in the nation, and we have a long and proud tradition of responsible firearm ownership,” Sununu wrote in his veto message of all three measures. “Our laws are well-crafted and fit our culture of responsible gun ownership and individual freedom.”

He said his administration had taken a different approach to curbing gun violence, including the creation of a school-safety task force, a massive investment in the state’s mental-health system, and the creation of a civil-rights unit in the attorney general’s office “to step up prosecution of hate crimes.”

But in the final analysis, Sununu said, he was following the state’s constitution, which includes a provision that “all persons have the right to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves, their families and their property and the state.”

As the governor noted, “this language provides what many believe to be more expansive legal protections for gun ownership than the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.” But beyond the constitutional issues there are sound policy reasons for skepticism against most gun-control measures.

Last year, the RAND Corporation — a think tank that leans to the left on public-safety issues — issued a report on the available academic research. “We found no qualifying studies showing that any of the 13 policies we investigated decreased mass shootings,” it concluded.

Take proposed new background checks. “There is not one mass public shooting this century that would have been stopped had background checks on the private transfer of guns been in effect,” says John Lott, who heads the Crime Prevention Research Center and is the author of the book The War on Guns.

The existing background-check system frequently fails to approve guns for many people with a legitimate fear or a need for them for protection, Lott noted in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2018. Virtually all of the initial denials in gun purchases are mistakes, he observed.

Expanding the existing flawed background system would open the door to set up a national registration system for guns. Our Canadian neighbors to the north had an expensive and unworkable gun registry that they eventually shut down in 2012.

As for “red flag” statutes that are ostensibly designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, the existing ones certainly aren’t crafted that way. Only one of the 17 states that currently have such laws even mentions the term “mental illness” in the statute. States that already have Baker Act statutes (which allow the involuntary institutionalization and examination of an individual) along with existing red-flag laws don’t even involve mental-health-care experts in deciding what to do with people whose gun applications are denied. How strange that the existing laws remove the normal role of mental-health-care professionals from the process. It’s as if a silent agenda that has little to real concern for safety is at work here.

Obviously, existing laws can be improved and, more important, enforced more vigorously. Laws mandating prison time for anyone using a gun while committing a crime do take dangerous people off of the street. More mental-health programs that directly tackle the problems of disturbed individuals are expensive but certainly needed. Congress passed a revamp of existing background checks last year, and it was signed into law by President Trump. But lawmakers can do more.

But we shouldn’t allow our leaders to rush for “solutions” that have been shown not to work in their current form. That’s why Governor Sununu’s political courage in not going for the quick fix is so commendable. Would that U.S. senators followed his example and refrained from joining the current political panic.

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