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Americans are tired of waiting for Washington to act on gun reform

It was 25 years ago this month when I voted for the 1994 crime bill while representing Kansas in Congress. There were provisions in there about the death penalty, community policing, and many other criminal justice issues. But the most controversial title in the bill was the federal assault weapons ban. It banned the manufacture of any gun that could be classified as an assault weapon and banned the possession of any magazine that could hold more than 10 rounds. It expired in 2004.
I had been in Congress for 18 years by this point, and I had just led the effort to pass legislation creating thousands of new jobs for aircraft workers in my district and throughout the state of Kansas. Not only did I think I was in good standing with my voters, I thought that my seat in Congress was about as safe as you can get. I did not fully appreciate the intensity of feeling against the federal assault weapons ban by many gun owners and law abiding citizens in my district. I lost my seat that fall.
I have never had any regrets about that vote. A 2004 federal study showed that the impact of the ban was to reduce the amount of crimes involving assault weapons. In the years since the ban expired, there has been an unending stream of massacres with assault weapons in Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Dayton, and El Paso. Whether you are inspired by one or another variant of terrorist ideology, or simply mentally unhealthy, the easiest and quickest way to kill a lot of people at one time is to purchase and use an assault rifle. They are available at thousands of stores across the country. That nothing has been done is a stain on the reputation of our policymakers, no matter which party they ascribe to, and this needs to be fixed immediately.
The good news is that it seems the debate on gun control has shifted. Moderates and independents are starting to resist the extremist rhetoric against middle ground solutions to gun violence. This was not the case in 1994 when the intensity was with those who opposed any form of gun restrictions. What was a fundamental principle of politics 25 years ago can move as norms and events change public views. That time for gun control may have arrived following the horrific shootings in Dayton and El Paso.
I am a moderate Democrat who represented a Republican district for nearly two decades. I fully respect the Second Amendment. I fully recognize that there is no simple answer to the proliferation of gun violence in America. Restricting assault weapons capable of mass killing is only one part of the solution here. Universal background checks will help gun sellers identify the mentally ill and criminals and prevent them from buying guns, and more training and funding for law enforcement would also help. Truthfully, universal background checks and things like red flag laws are more politically attainable now, but are only a first step.
President Trump
will probably never sign a full assault weapons ban, although there has been some progress thanks to the ban on bump stocks that make firing weapons easier and faster. At least he has indicated an open mind on background checks and red flag laws. In any case, focusing on mental health should be part of the solution. But all of these policy options, up to and including a federal ban on assault weapons, are fully compatible with the protection of Second Amendment rights.
Americans are sick of the carnage. This has become a public health crisis of enormous magnitude and makes the country look like a blood soaked basket case to the rest of the world. In government, it is hard to enact policies that fix problems so simply and easily. Health care, poverty, housing, climate, you name it, there are always deep complexities to designing policies that fix the problem without creating others. With massacres using assault weapons, it is very straightforward.
It is time for our leaders to act. The politics are no longer as one sided as they used to be. The intensity of the opponents of gun reform laws is today matched by the intensity of support for doing something about this problem. That is a game changer. I hope Congress and President Trump do not miss this chance for real reform. John Maynard Keynes once declared, “For every complicated problem there is a simple and wrong solution.” Perhaps, but I do not think that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe there is nothing we can do to end gun violence.
Dan Glickman served as United States secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now a vice president of the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center. You can follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.