Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It's a measure of how deeply deadlocked this country has been on gun control that the package of modest reforms signed into law constitutes a victory.
It is progress, sure, but hardly the sort of sweeping legislation that President Joe Biden and reform advocates had called for in the wake of the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
The measures approved by Congress, aided by a remarkable coalition of Democrats and Republicans, are significantly better than nothing, which is what followed on the federal level after outrages like the 2012 school shooting in Newton, Conn., and the 2018 massacre in Parkland, Fla.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board observed earlier this month, the succession of active shooters may be generating a constituency of grieving survivors that has grown too large to ignore.
The newly enacted legislation toughens the background checks required for aspiring gun purchasers younger than 21. It encourages states to pass so-called red flag laws, which enable authorities to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people. It closes the "boyfriend loophole" that has allowed some domestic abusers to possess firearms. It provides more money for mental health services in schools and communities. It beefs up the funding available for school safety initiatives.
There is reason to hope that these measures can stem the body count. The shooter in Uvalde was 18, as was the alleged gunman in Buffalo. They might have been stopped — or at least impeded — by lengthier background checks. There were indications that both were harboring murderous impulses, which might have allowed authorities to disarm them under red flag laws.
As Biden remarked when he signed the legislation, public servants have often heard demands that they "do something" to curb mass shootings; this package of reforms does something, even if it doesn't do everything. For example, the president and others had sought an assault-weapons ban that didn't materialize.
And there was more disappointment to come. On the very day the Senate approved the gun-safety bill, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that struck down a gun-control law in New York state.
That law had given the authorities in New York broad power to decide who could and could not carry guns in their state. Applicants needed to show that they had a legitimate reason to carry firearms. In a decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court declared that it knew of no other right that required citizens to provide a reason before exercising it.
"That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion," Thomas wrote. "It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant's right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense."
In tossing out the New York law, the high court also imperiled similar laws in five other states — states that have "may issue," or discretionary, permit laws as opposed to "shall issue" laws that treat all applicants the same. (Minnesota is a "shall issue" state.)
A concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, pointed out that "shall issue" states can impose several restrictions, like mandatory training and fingerprinting. Presumably, New York and the other affected states can pass new laws containing significant limits that won't run afoul of the Supreme Court's standards.
Even so, the court's ruling was visibly counter to the spirit of the new law passed by Congress. It served as a poignant reminder that, to achieve meaningful gun reform, the United States still has a long way to go.