On June 25, President Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the bill introduced in the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York. It is most significant federal gun control legislation passed in nearly 30 years. The bill’s provisions include restricting gun access for people under 21 as well as for people with domestic violence convictions, and funding youth mental health program—and harsher sentences for those who buy unauthorized guns, including up to 25 years in prison if the gun is linked to “drug trafficking.”
It seems that the cost of bipartisan cooperation in Congress is doubling down on the drug war and mass incarceration, by adding new crimes to the federal criminal code and making existing penalties more extreme. Guns can be tools of violence in a way drugs simply cannot, and increased criminalization of drug use has only ever worsened the overdose crisis, but none of these distinctions apparently matter to a government obsessed with increased criminalization as the answer to everything.
Will harsher sentencing for people making illegal gun purchases do anything to make communities safer? It has yet to work for anything else. What harsher sentencing does reliably accomplish is increased surveillance and criminalization of communities of color. (Two days before the bill became law, the Supreme Court overturned a New York public-carry law and essentially gave cops free rein to assume anyone is carrying a concealed firearm at anytime, which will obviously be very selectively enforced.)
Heavy policing and increased exposure to the drug war make Black and Brown men in particular disproportionately likely to have prior felony convictions. And it takes little imagination to see why some people with felony convictions, living in circumstances they understand make them targets of gun violence, might want a gun.
Gun control can also take the more proactive form of investing in safer, healthier communities.
Gun ownership by someone with a felony conviction is already harshly punished under federal law—up to 10 years in prison—yet the current bill would create a new crime with even longer sentencing exposure when middlemen engaged in “straw purchasing” are involved. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act may have soothed a few politicians’ concerns about their NRA score by allowing them to reassure their constituents that they are putting even more minorities in in prison, but longer prison sentences simply do not make sense as a gun control measure.
Measures like background checks and licensing are critical. But gun control can also take the more proactive form of creating safer and healthier communities, especially those which have long been deliberately underresourced. School safety programs and youth mental health resources can only do so much without adequate social safety nets and meaningful redistribution of wealth.
Consider that on a per capita basis, the United States contains four to five times more civilian-owned guns than Norway. Yet our gun violence rate is not four to five times higher. It’s 2,000 times higher.
Universal health care and affordable housing would go a long way toward curbing gun violence in a country that insists on having more guns than people. Sidelining decarceration, and increasing the harms of the criminal legal system among the communities already vulnerable to it, will not.
Photograph via United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs