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James Baker: Gun laws that Republicans can support

As someone who learned to hunt wild game at my father’s elbow, and who continues to prowl after wild turkeys, quail and elk at the age of 93, two things about guns are crystal clear to me. First, I maintain strong passions for firearms and the outdoors and, just as importantly, a healthy respect for both. But second, in the face of a seemingly daily barrage of mass shootings like the recent one in Allen, Texas, it is evident our country is suffering a tragic epidemic of gun violence that has veered out of control.

The numbers are overwhelming. At a time when modern medicine is finding ways to reduce cancer, heart disease and other causes of death, our nation is experiencing an upward spiral in firearm fatalities. Since 2000, such deaths have increased by 55 percent to 44,310 last year. The toll of American civilians who have suffered gun-related deaths during the past 50 years is more than the 1.35 million U.S. soldiers who died during all our wars combined.

When all firearms-related deaths are combined (accidental, suicide and homicide), they become one of the nation’s 15 biggest killers. Sadly, the most vulnerable among us are the biggest victims. In 2021, firearms were the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens, accounting for nearly 19 percent of deaths of those 18 or younger.

With the carnage seemingly out of control, it is little wonder a recent Gallup poll indicates Americans’ dissatisfaction with U.S. gun laws has risen to 63 percent, the highest since Gallup began tracking national gun policies in 2001. Although demand for change comes largely from Democrats and independents, 44 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with gun laws as well. Absent new laws, that public dissatisfaction will only increase as the death toll mounts.

Such public sentiment is one reason Congress passed a bipartisan bill last summer — the first major federal gun safety legislation since the assault weapons ban of 1994, a law that expired after 10 years. Last year, Republicans and Democrats hammered out the new legislation in the aftermath of mass shootings in a Buffalo, New York supermarket and an elementary school in Uvalde. The law established background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21, further criminalized arms trafficking and provided millions of dollars for states to implement red flag laws and other crisis intervention programs.

James A. Baker, III, the 61st U.S. secretary of state, and President Jimmy Carter. 

Though the new law did not go far enough to reduce gun violence, it was a promising first step towards the development of further legislation. Additional steps should be considered that might be able to attract bipartisan support, including:

A ban on armor-piercing bullets, the kind that are opposed by police chiefs around the country.

A longer waiting period — or a “cooling off period” — for the purchase of a handgun.

Further strengthening background checks for all gun purchasers, and not just those younger than 21.

At the same time, and most important of all, Congress should increase resources that go to mental health services because mental health is clearly and directly related to our escalating levels of gun violence. Mass shootings, in particular, often appear associated with psychological maladies. This is not to excuse the perpetrators. Rather, it is a call to marshal the resources at our disposal to stop senseless killings before they occur.

Any approach, of course, will demand bipartisan support. This is not only important because our current system requires a 60-vote majority in the Senate. But also because, absent wide support, any laws passed now might well be rescinded once the partisan balance of power inevitably shifts.

Getting to a bipartisan deal will not be easy, particularly under the dysfunctional political climate in our country. A sensible middle ground will be needed to thread the difficult partisan needle.

I worked for three wise U.S. presidents — George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. All were men with great respect for the freedom provided by the Second Amendment. They understood that our Constitution is a precious safeguard for those worried that “they’re going to take our guns away.” But they also understood that our nation has had gun laws throughout its history. And all favored reasonable restrictions.

10/20/1994 - (L-R) Former President George HW Bush, former Secretary of State James Baker, former President Gerald Ford, Charles Duncan Jr. and Rice University president Malcolm Gillis help break ground for the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice.

Some will say that Americans may just have to get used to the gun violence that plagues our nation. There are too many guns in this country, they will say, to put the genie back in the bottle. We should reject such pessimism.

Can we get rid of gun violence in one fell legislative swoop? Of course not. But to help stem the rising tide of gun violence, we can and should take practical, pragmatic steps — both those directly related to firearms and those related to mental health.

James A. Baker, III, was the nation’s 61st Secretary of State and 67th Secretary of the Treasury.