Yes, We Can Have Sane Gun Control Without Trampling Gun Owners' Rights
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Editor's note: a version of this piece originally ran after the Minnesota Sikh Temple shootings in August.
The United States is not the only country to experience the horrors of mass shootings. We are, however, the only society in which a serious discussion of tighter gun controls doesn't follow incidents like the massacres we've seen at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday. In fact, in most countries these kinds of tragedies result in some kind of concrete legislative action.
The reason we can't have a sane, adult discussion of how to cut down on random gun violence is simple: the NRA has hoodwinked a lot of reasonable gun owners into believing that there's a debate in this country over banning firearms altogether. We'll never be able to have a serious discussion about how to cut down on gun violence until that group accepts the actual terms of the debate. And the NRA has a vested interest in making sure they remain obscure because the organization represents gun manufacturers and a small, highly ideological minority of gun-nuts, rather than (typically responsible) gun owners.
And that means that, at least in theory, there is political space for a new kind of gun control advocacy – one that isn't about whether Americans have a right to bear arms, but instead explicitly advocates safe and responsible gun ownership, a goal the polls tell us most gun owners would embrace.
How the NRA Dupes Gun Owners for Political and Economic Gain
Th idea that someone wants to grab Americans' guns couldn't be further from reality. The truth is that Americans' right to own firearms has never been more secure at any time in our nation's history. A series of Supreme Court decisions – notably a 2010 decision that settled, in gun owners' favor, decades of debate about whether the Second Amendment was an individual right – effectively ended any question of banning firearms.
At the same time, Democrats determined that guns have become a culture-war issue they don't need to fight and can't win. Whereas just over a decade ago the federal government was enacting bans on assault rifles under Bill Clinton, in 2009 Barack Obama signed legislation into law that contained an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., opening up America’s national parks to concealed weapons.
In 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had been the most vocal champion of the 1993 Assault Weapons Ban, said of today's climate: “I wouldn't bring it up now.” So the fight over guns has moved to the margins, with state legislatures grappling with issues like whether people can carry concealed firearms into airports, whether to ban concealed weapons in bars and even whether a person should be able to get drunk when packing heat at their favorite pub. Florida is now spending big bucks defending a bizarre law that prevents physicians from asking patients whether they have firearms in their homes.
That reality hasn’t interfered with the gun lobby’s fear-mongering. During the 2008 election, FactCheck.org called out the NRA for running an “advertising campaign [that] distorts Obama's position on gun control beyond recognition.”
Much of what the NRA passes off as Obama's "10 Point Plan to 'Change' the Second Amendment" is actually contrary to what he has said throughout his campaign: that he "respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms" and "will protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns."
Four years later, NRA president Wayne LaPierre continued to deceive the gun owners his organization claims to represent, peddling a ridiculous conspiracy, dug from the fever swamps of the far right, about how Obama and the UN are conspiring to use an international small-arms treaty to confiscate Americans' guns in a second term. (Despite the fact that this claim is utter nonsense, the administration recently caved in to the NRA and scuttled the treaty. That hasn't assured gun owners who've been suckered by LaPierre, however.)
The NRA president's motives for lying to his members are clear: his fearmongering brings a windfall of fundraising to the organization and expands the market for the arms manufacturers -- his true base -- that finance much of the lobby’s work. As Alan Berlow wrote in Salon, “The only way to avert this calamity, the NRA’s 4 million members are told in daily email alerts, the organization’s various magazines and regular fundraising appeals, is if they all dig deep into their pockets and send money to the NRA.”
While a lot of gun owners are quite concerned, the arms industry is laughing all the way to the bank. Just after the 2008 election, the New York Times reported that “sales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last week, according to gun store owners around the nation who describe a wave of buyers concerned that an Obama administration will curtail their right to bear arms.” A year later, CNN noted that “Gun shops across the country are reporting a run on ammunition, a phenomenon apparently driven by fear that the Obama administration will increase taxes on bullets or enact new gun-control measures.”
Most Gun Owners Are Reasonable; Our Discourse About Guns Is Not
This bogus "gun-grabbers" narrative results in a discourse that is truly bizarre – one tilted toward a small minority of gun-nuts whose fantasy lives are wrapped up in heroic notions of fending off government “tyranny” with their deer rifles or saving the day by blowing away a crazed killer rather than what most gun owners see as a safe and reasonable way to balance the rights enshrined in the Second Amendment against concerns for public safety.
The right to bear arms is the only one that draws the kind of absolutism we see among the hardcore gun-rights set. Most of us recognize that the right to free speech has certain limits. You can't claim First Amendment protection for yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater, slandering someone or using “fighting words.” But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently made news when he suggested that Americans may have the right to own Stinger hand-held missiles because they are portable, and therefore, unlike cannons, they count as arms that a person might “bear.” (How twisted is this view? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed miniature nuclear weapons that could be carried in a backpack.)
Another example: fearful gun-owners often say that "cars kill more people than guns but nobody's trying to ban them." But consider that there are many jurisdictions in which it is perfectly legal to shoot while intoxicated. Cars are certainly dangerous, but we have strict licensing requirements and it's illegal to operate them under the influence everywhere in the United States. The same is true for boats and airplanes, but not firearms.
Or consider that the NRA constantly tells us that "guns don't kill people, people kill people,” and then blocks any and every attempt to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people – things like expanded background checks, or closing the gun-show loophole. In fact, that loophole – which allows anyone who isn't a full-time gun-merchant to sell weapons at gun shows without any background checks whatsoever – was pushed hard by the NRA back in the 1980s.
In 2007, the NRA went so far as to lobby the Bush administration to oppose a law that would have barred suspected terrorists from buying firearms. (Most intelligence experts say a Mumbai-style attack with small arms is one of the greatest terror threats we face, and last year an Al Qaeda spokesman encouraged “terrorists to use American gun shows to arm themselves” for such assaults.)
The good news is that while 47 percent of Americans say they own a gun, the overwhelming majority aren't gun-nuts; they're responsible people who worry about their kids getting caught in a cross-fire, who believe firearms should be handled safely and see it as perfectly reasonable to keep them out of the wrong hands.
That's reflected in the polling. As Cliff Schecter noted last month, studies of public opinion find that a majority of gun-owners are in favor of closing the gun-show loophole the NRA championed (85 percent of all gun owners, and 69 percent of NRA members). Eighty-two percent of NRA members believe that people on the federal terror watch list should be barred from buying firearms. Almost seven in 10 NRA members disagree with the organization's efforts to prevent law enforcement from determining the origins of weapons used in crimes.
Schecter writes that the NRA has “fought all efforts to make reporting lost or stolen guns to the police a requirement,” and in some cases has “actually threatened to sue to overturn these laws.” But 88 percent of gun owners – and 78 percent of NRA members – think that requiring people to report lost or stolen weapons is a pretty good idea.
The uptake from all this is that we can have reasonable, commonsense restrictions on firearms, but we'll never achieve that until people realize that nobody's trying to ban all firearms, and that the NRA in no way represents the interests of most gun owners.
Time to Reset the Debate
At first glance, it appears that the NRA has a stranglehold on gun advocacy in this country – it is, after all, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. But that's not entirely true. In 1975, an NRA board member who didn't think the organization was taking a sufficiently absolutist position on the Second Amendment founded Gun Owners of America, which reportedly has 300,000 members (compared to the 4.3 million claimed by the NRA) and lobbies well to the right of its more senior cousin.
Given the rather significant divide between the NRA's positions and the views held by most of its members, there appears to be ample political space to the organization's “left” to advocate reasonable gun controls on behalf of American gun owners – people who cherish the basic right to bear arms but also recognize that allowing drunken bar patrons to carry concealed weapons is just stupid.
Such an effort could go a long way toward convincing reasonable gun owners who have been deceived by the NRA's brazen lies into believing that someone's out to get their guns, and that's really the only way that we'll ever be able to have a serious discussion about safe and responsible gun ownership.
At this point, that should be the goal. There is simply no good reason, for example, that 100-round magazines should be legal given that they serve no legitimate purpose for hunting or target practice, and Americans favor banning them by a 63-34 margin. Or how about discussing the potential merits of a national "no-sell" list that would give law enforcement and mental health personnel the opportunity to flag potentially dangerous people to licensed gun-merchants?
Would these kinds of modest regulations of gun ownership end the scourge of gun violence in America? Of course not – people will always snap. But we're living in an era when mass shootings (which, it should be noted, represent only a small fraction of all gun violence) have become commonplace – we've seen four just since the beginning of June – and most of them were with weapons purchased legally. We don't have to tolerate this many killings as a new normal. Given where the Supreme Court is on the issue – and public opinion – our goal shouldn't be to ban firearms, but simply to make gun violence as rare as possible.