If the U.S. Senate follows the path of the House, there will soon be a “Kate’s Law.” But there won’t be a “Bianca’s Law” anytime soon. And Congress won’t take up a “Miosotis’ Law,” either.
Like Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman shot dead in San Francisco two years ago, Bianca Roberson and Miosotis Familia were American women in the prime of life when they were killed.
Roberson, 18 and preparing for college, was shot June 28 while driving in Pennsylvania, an apparent victim of road rage. Familia, 48, a New York City police officer, was murdered last week as she was sitting in a police vehicle in the Bronx.
Each of the three women lost her life in a horrible, senseless crime, in distinct circumstances that could, and perhaps should, inspire serious reconsideration of public policy. Yet Kate’s Law, passed by the House in late June, will no doubt be the sole legislative response.
It’s worth examining why.
It’s only partly about race. Steinle was white, and her accused killer was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Those facts would matter less if Republicans had chosen a different path in 2016 instead of embracing Donald Trump, who repeatedly denigrated Mexicans, sought to inspire fear of immigrants and deployed overtly racial appeals to white voters.
Steinle was shot, seemingly at random, on a San Francisco pier where she had walked with her father. Her reported killer had a long history of drug convictions, prison sentences and deportations. He should not have been in the U.S. Yet the way that Republicans convey this story matters.
Why did Steinle die? Is it because the criminal justice system imposes too lenient prison terms on criminals? Is it the fault of a bumbling government employee, a federal ranger, who left his gun where it could be stolen? There are many ways to explain the tragedy.
The narrative adopted by Trump, and reinforced by pro-Trump media, is that Steinle died from illegal immigration. Trump mentioned her death repeatedly on the campaign trail in that context and in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president.
“Of all my travels in this country,” he said, “nothing has affected me more deeply than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our border.”
So Steinle didn’t die because a man pulled the trigger of a gun. She died because an undocumented Mexican crossed a border. The penalties imposed by Kate’s Law wouldn’t offer much deterrence. Illegal border crossing after deportation is already a felony. The man accused of killing Steinle was caught at the border repeatedly after having been deported and was imprisoned multiple times. But Kate’s Law might accomplish other goals.
It has the potential, for instance, to put Democratic politicians on the defensive. “They’re gonna use Kate Steinle’s picture in a Willie Horton-style ad,” a House Democratic aide told the Hill newspaper.
The murders of Roberson and Familia are less politically potent. Roberson was black, and Familia was Hispanic.
Roberson is reported to have been killed by a white man who became enraged when he and Roberson were jockeying for the same highway lane. Guns are freely, legally sold to insecure men with hair-trigger emotions and minimal self-control. Such men, when armed, are dangerous, as Roberson’s death once again confirms.
Yet Republicans in Congress aren’t eager to highlight laws that enable reckless, dangerous men to carry loaded semi-automatic weapons wherever they go. And the politicians have no intention of offering remedies for the violence that sometimes results.
There will be no Bianca’s Law.
Likewise, the murder of Familia, the police officer, has limited utility for Republicans. She was reportedly shot by a black man with a history of mental instability. He seems to have used a gun stolen in West Virginia, one of the states with lax gun laws that supplies New York City with illegal firearms.
The relationship of mental illness to gun violence is a complicated issue. But it’s not one that genuinely interests many Republican lawmakers. Similarly, the flow of illegal guns up Interstate 95 to New York (much like the tide of Indiana guns that deluges Chicago) is another topic relevant to the murder of Familia. But it’s not a topic Republicans wish to discuss.
It’s tempting to view Kate’s Law as a purely symbolic act that will have no real impact on American society. But that’s probably incorrect. Like Trump’s ugly campaign rhetoric, the law serves as a talking point about the evils of undocumented immigrants, and as a rallying point for conservative fear and agitation.
To many Republican politicians, those are useful outcomes. A Bianca’s Law, or a Miosotis’ Law, on the other hand, might require a fact-based discussion about the causes of gun violence. What’s to be gained from that?