Held hostage by NRA paranoia

Obama (finally) suggests it's time for stronger gun laws. Here's what we need -- and what he's up against

By Alan Berlow

Published December 17, 2012 2:09PM (EST)

          (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-61025p1.html'>robcocquyt</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(robcocquyt via Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

For the first time since taking office nearly four years ago, President Obama has strongly suggested that he is prepared to take on the gun lobby.  In remarks to the people of Newtown, Conn., Sunday night, the president said he will "use whatever power this office holds" to prevent massacres like the one that took the lives of 20 6- and 7-year-old school children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. Although Obama was not specific about exactly what he would do, he seemed to draw a clear line in the sand against the gun lobby when he asked, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"

The argument that gun control in virtually any form represents a direct assault on our freedoms is a centerpiece of the National Rifle Association's Second Amendment canon.  Throughout his first term, but particularly during the just-concluded presidential campaign, Obama was under constant attack from the NRA for attempting to subvert the Constitution.  In a fundraising letter last spring, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre charged that, "all of our freedoms, all of our rights, all of our values ... All of them will be lost if Barack Obama is reelected."  In an October column in the NRA's flagship publication, "First Freedom," LaPierre wrote: "With four more years of Obama, your firearms freedoms are gone.  And we'll spend the rest of our lives mourning the freedoms we've lost... Every freedom we cherish as Americans is endangered by Obama.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Without even mentioning gun control, Obama declared that the nation had not met "our obligations" to keep our children "safe from harm."

"We're not doing enough.  And we will have to change," the president said, making it clear that to do nothing "in the face of such carnage" because "the politics are too hard" was no longer an option.

Whether or not the uniquely horrifying details of this latest massacre will be enough to break the National Rifle Association's suffocating muzzle on any rational discussion about guns remains to be seen.  And that, as much as the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary School, speaks volumes about the perverse state of our national debate about guns.

Until now, it has been pretty much taken for granted that the parameters of this debate are narrowly circumscribed by the NRA, an organization whose web pages are replete with paranoid conspiracy theories about a United Nations takeover of the United States, a campaign by New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg to "destroy" the NRA, and efforts by mysterious, unnamed forces bent on the destruction of -- in the words of CEO Wayne LaPierre -- "everything that makes America better than the rest of the world."  This is an organization whose top leaders are quite literally predicting -- based on not a scintilla of actual evidence -- that all Americans will be disarmed by the end of President Obama's second term and that the Second Amendment will be "excised from the Constitution." Yet it is this organization to which the Republican Party -- and a sizable number of Democrats -- pay unseemly obeisance and turn for their marching orders on all manner of gun-related issues.

The unspeakable mayhem at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people were murdered in a matter of minutes by a single gunman, has revived calls for new gun control laws, which the NRA will almost certainly oppose.  The NRA has yet to specifically address the events last Friday.  "Until the facts are thoroughly known, NRA will not have any comment," a spokesman said -- almost exactly the same comment the lobby issued last July when a gunman killed 12 and wounded 58 at an Aurora, Colorado cinema.  The people who run the NRA are confident that public outrage over the latest gun violence will quickly blow over.  It nearly always does.  After all, the 20 children who died in Connecticut last Friday are hardly alone.  Between 2000 and 2010, more than 21,000 children aged 19 or younger were murdered with guns in the United States (along with  112,000 adults), according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Another 126,470 kids were wounded in firearm assaults between 2001 and 2011.

In his remarks last night, Obama left little doubt that he was not only aware of the unending toll taken by gun violence, but felt compelled to try to do something about it.  "Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community, torn apart by mass shootings," Obama told the 1,700 gathered to hear him at the Newtown High School auditorium.  "And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children ... We can't tolerate this anymore," the president said.  "These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change."

Although the NRA has temporarily gone to ground, it's no secret that its solution to this sort of gun violence is more guns. Indeed, chief spokesman LaPierre has made clear that he believes every American should be armed with a concealed weapon.  “Every American wife and mother and daughter, every law-abiding adult woman should be trained, armed and encouraged to carry a firearm for personal protection,” LaPierre told the NRA's national convention, and he wasn't trying to establish his feminist credentials.  LaPierre thinks every man in America should be packing heat as well.  The NRA believes that armed citizens in places like Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech and Columbine can stop determined killers.  "The presence of a firearm makes us all safer," LaPierre said.  "It's just that simple."

Whether or not a "responsible," law-abiding adult trained in the use of firearms could make a difference in any particular situation is worthy of discussion.  Likewise the question of how to ensure that adult gun owners are responsible.  The problem is that the NRA and its congressional allies don't want a rational debate about guns.  Two months after the 2011 Tucson rampage, which left six dead and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, LaPierre rejected an invitation from President Obama to discuss ways of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable.  LaPierre said there was no point talking to "people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment."  Following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which left 13 dead, the NRA urged a similar boycott of a meeting called by President Clinton to discuss ways of addressing teen violence.

The challenge today is not coming up with "the answer" to the nation's gun violence; rather it is to move beyond the absurd but prevailing myth perpetrated by the extremists who currently run the NRA that nothing should be done because any effort to limit access to guns will lead to gun confiscation and tyranny.  Fully 78 percent of NRA members support new laws that would require gun dealers and private citizens to report lost or stolen firearms within 24 to 48 hours, according to a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.  Police support these common sense laws because they want to move quickly when a gun is lost or stolen (a half-million are stolen each year), before someone gets shot.  It is only the self-described "freedom fighters" in the NRA leadership who oppose them because they know such laws will have the greatest impact on dealers who make millions each year selling guns to criminals.  These dealers are among the NRA's most devoted supporters.

Criminal gun dealers and their advocates in the NRA leadership also oppose closing the notorious "gun show loophole," which allows criminals to purchase firearms without a Brady background check.  Most NRA members understand that background checks make sense.  According to the same Luntz poll, fully 69 percent of the NRA’s membership and 85 percent of the general public support background checks for gun show sales.  Yet in 2009, no less than nine million firearms were allowed to legally enter the U.S. domestic market without background checks, thanks to the NRA and its allies in Congress.

Most American gun owners are law-abiding citizens.  Those who buy firearms for self-defense do so because they're afraid of the criminals the NRA not only helps to arm, but helps to escape, once they commit their crimes.  The NRA does this by threatening members of Congress who favor sensible laws that would give police the ability to trace guns more quickly.  Thanks to NRA lobbying, Brady background checks must be destroyed within 24 hours and purchases at one gun store cannot be cross-checked with purchases at another.  These loopholes in the law make it far more difficult to catch illegal gun purchasers and gun traffickers.

Tracing guns requires record-keeping, which the NRA opposes based on the preposterous claim that a government database of gun purchases will invite tyranny and allow a tyrannical government to round up the 300 million guns held by a third of American households.  To make sure that doesn't happen, the NRA is happy to allow thousands of murderers, gun traffickers and other thugs to go free each and every year.

In the real world where most Americans reside without fear of tyranny, background checks and record-keeping can and do work.  More than 10 million felons, domestic abusers and people with serious mental disorders have been turned away by responsible gun dealers due to Brady background checks, which the NRA claimed would lead to a fascist police state.  Yet better record-keeping laws are needed.  Many states have failed to provide records of "prohibited persons" to the FBI.  Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech mass murderer (32 dead, 17 wounded), had been declared mentally unfit by a Virginia judge, yet the state never shared those records.

Legislation to fix this loophole and improve record-keeping on seriously ill individuals has been introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and has wide public support.  Naturally, it is opposed by the NRA.

Federal law requires that Americans who purchase more than one handgun during a single week be identified in a "multiple sales report" sent to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.  These reports have been highly useful in identifying gun traffickers.  Might these regulations inconvenience an occasional law-abiding citizen who buys a handgun for each of his 12 kids for Christmas?  Perhaps. But those are the breaks.  To his credit, President Obama used his regulatory authority to require similar reporting for purchases of long guns of more than .22 caliber in four border states.  Those regulations were designed to identify buyers who are purchasing guns for Mexican drug cartels.  The NRA immediately challenged the regulations in court, insisting they were a backdoor effort to register all guns in America.  Fortunately, the courts have thus far seen through this ridiculous argument.

President Obama has previously suggested that he would like to reinstate the assault weapons ban, a measure that never really worked because manufacturers simply modified their designs to fit within the law.  A better solution would be to require registration of these weapons, as well as licensing of their owners.  A federal law enacted back in 1934 -- with the cooperation of the then more rational NRA -- required registration of machine guns and other highly dangerous weapons.

Today, many easily obtainable semi-automatic weapons, including many designed for use by the military, are no less dangerous, and in many cases far more dangerous, than the guns covered by the '34 National Firearms Act (NFA).  Yet no licensing or registration is required.  The '34 law should be updated with assault rifles and many other highly lethal weapons brought under its purview.

NRA leaders love to prattle on about "responsible gun owners."  But many people need  laws to tell them how to behave responsibly.  That's why there are speed limits on highways.  Similarly, the NFA lets law-abiding Americans own machine guns -- fully automatic weapons -- if they're willing to have their fingerprints and mug shots maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and if they're willing to have local law enforcement authorities approve their licenses.  The logic of this law is simple:  if you possess an extremely deadly firearm, the authorities have a right to know who you are; if the crazy guy next door wants to own that same machine gun, your local sheriff or police chief might want to say that's a bad idea.

And guess what?  For nearly 80 years, machine gun lovers have lived with these requirements, and the federal government has yet to try and round them up.  If NRA members can live with these registration requirements, there is no reason that law-abiding Americans who want to own equally dangerous weapons designed for warfare shouldn't be able to live with similar requirements. By the same token, millions of Americans today have permits to carry concealed weapons.  Many got that right thanks to lobbying by the NRA.  Many states require FBI background checks, mug shots and fingerprinting to get one of those concealed carry licenses.  Some states also require extensive training in the appropriate use of weapons.  Those laws are designed to ensure that gun owners behave responsibly.  Similar laws for ordinary gun owners would make them more responsible as well.

When you drill down to specific, common-sense measures that would make us all safer, the overwhelming majority of Americans are prepared to accept some new limits on gun ownership and gun use -- limits that won't interfere with constitutional rights or the right to self defense.  Maybe Newtown will convince these citizens that it's finally time to stand up against the radical conspiracy theorists and paranoids who oppose workable gun laws, and the criminals whose crimes they abet.  "No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world," the president told the grieving citizens of Newtown.  "But that can't be an excuse for inaction.  Surely we can do better than this."

Alan Berlow

Alan Berlow is the author of "Dead Season: A Story of Murder and Revenge." His writing has appeared in the The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and Harper's.

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