No Time for Gun Reform

Is it ever OK to talk about the politics of gun control? It seems like after every mass murder we are told that it’s not right to take advantage of the tragedy to bring up the need for some controls on America’s most popular killing devices, but with the constant incidents of multiple-casualty shootings, there are few openings to take up the matter.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at bradycampaign.org has a list of more than 400 mass shootings in the United States since 2005. By the Brady Campaign’s count, the July 20 massacre at the Batman movie premiere in Aurora, Colo., was the 61st mass shooting that has occurred in the US since a gunman opened fire Jan. 8, 2011, at a town meeting called by US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. In that incident, a mentally disturbed young man wielding a pistol with an extra-large-capacity magazine is alleged to have fired 32 rounds in 16 seconds before being subdued while trying to reload. Six people, including a federal judge, were killed and 13 were wounded, including Giffords.

President Obama came in for criticism after that tragedy because he did not take the lead in calling for stricter gun laws, but the National Rifle Association already was speading paranoia on the right and promoting gun sales with irresponsible claims that Obama was coming after your guns.

The NRA is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which is tax-exempt, but it is opposed to letting the public — or its membership — know who bankrolls its lobbying operation. It also operates a foundation as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization to fund gun safety and educational projects for the general public. But the NRA opposed the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, which would let citizens know what corporations and individuals contribute more than $10,000 to political action committees that engage in the sort of independent political expenditures that the NRA makes. The disclosure law was written to allow such groups to keep their ordinary members secret. But NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox in a letter warned senators that their vote will count on the NRA’s legislative scorecard for this Congress, and Republicans obliged by blocking the bill with a filibuster.

We agree with the US Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which held that the Second Amendment gives American citizens an individual right to own guns, and McDonald v. Chicago (2010), which clarified that the right to own handguns for personal protection extends to the states. However, the court allowed the states to regulate the sale and carrying of firearms outside the home and it left open the possibility of prohibiting assault rifles and other weapons that are “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”

The ban on assault rifles and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds, which was enacted in 1994 and expired in 2004, seemed to be a reasonable move. A semiautomatic assault rifle is not much use for a deer hunter and it isn’t the best weapon for home defense — a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun is a better choice when you hear a disturbance after dark, and there is no mistaking the “ka-chunk” when you rack up a round to persuade a home invader to retreat.

The main use for an assault weapon, on the other hand, is to overpower someone or a group. That is unlikely to be a legitimate use. And no honest civilian needs more than 10 shots to get out of trouble. If they are carrying more rounds than that, they likely are looking for trouble.

After the Democratic Congress, at the prompting of President Bill Clinton, included a ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic assault rifle and magazines holding more than 10 bullets as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, the NRA lowered the boom, closely coordinating its election strategy with Republican officials, Robert Dreyfus wrote in The American Prospect in December 2001. “Republicans provided the NRA with polling data and lists of vulnerable Democrats in order to coordinate campaigns ... In addition to strategizing with the Republicans, the NRA — ostensibly a single-issue organization — was throwing its lot in with other conservative groups, many of whom had little interest in guns but shared the NRA’s desire to unseat Democrats. Together, these groups pursued lower taxes, free market economics, a smaller federal government, and a cutback in safety and health regulations.”

The NRA claims 4.3 million members, but it no longer represents the interests of ordinary hunters and gun enthusiasts. It mainly represents the interests of gun manufacturers, it enables mass murderers, and it has increasingly cast its weight behind the Republican Party and corporate interests. The Center for Responsive Politics at OpenSecrets.org reported that between 2001 and 2010, the NRA spent between $1.5 million and $2.7 million on federal lobbying efforts. But during the 2010 election cycle, after the Citizens United decision, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level — messages that primarily supported Republican candidates or opposed Democratic candidates.

There is mixed evidence that the assault weapons ban was effective. National Institute of Justice researchers in 2004 found that assault weapons were used in only a small fraction of crimes before the ban. Large-capacity magazines were used more often than assault weapons, but the researchers noted that assault weapons with large-capacity magazines tend to be used in murders of police and mass public shootings. Following implementation of the ban, a drop in the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons was offset by a rise in use of guns equipped with large-capacity magazines, due to the large stock of pre-ban magazines that were still available in stores.

Since the ban expired in September 2004, gun enthusiasts, at the urging of the NRA, have been stocking up on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. There are now more than 300 million guns in private hands in the US as sales have surged since 2008, when gun owners were told that President Obama meant to confiscate their firearms, though neither he nor other Democratic leaders have suggested any such thing. But that hasn’t stopped NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who in February told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that the president’s strategy was “crystal clear: Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the US Constitution.”

With many moderate Democrats in the House and Senate intimidated by the threat from the NRA’s millions, and no real monied interests promoting gun control, it would take a dozen Republican senators and 40 representatives to reverse their positions to put a new assault weapons and large-capacity magazine ban in play — and even then the gun-control Republicans would have to put pressure on House Republican leadership to allow a vote on the bill — and neither Speaker John Boehner nor Majority Leader Eric Cantor are inclined to let that happen.

With so many guns and large-capacity magazines already out there, it might seem like the damage is done. But we might prevent another deranged young man from assembling an armory.

So if you want Congress to pass a sensible gun bill, you are going to have to elect a Democratic House, keep the Senate in Democratic hands and pad that Senate majority by a few seats, as well as re-elect President Obama. Sure, Mitt Romney signed a state assault weapons ban when he was governor of Massachusetts in 2004, but he has repented every moderate view he held in those days, and there is no telling what he might do if he actually made it to the White House. But if Romney is in the Oval Office, chances are that Eric Cantor will be the new Speaker and Mitch McConnell will be the new Senate Majority Leader, and that won’t do the rest of us any good. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012


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