Reasonable Gun Laws: An Opportunity for the Return of the Moderate Republican

Forgotten Future

Forgotten Future (Photo credit: much0)

“Everything is hard before it is easy.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It was 2005. I was sitting in the Senate Commerce Committee room at a hearing, and Senator John McCain was a little teed off. What set him off was a little speech by then-Senator George Allen of Virginia (yes, the “macaca” fellow) about how seat belt laws were evidence of the “nanny state.”

Senator McCain took a very different view, pointing to their role in saving lives and talking about his support for the automotive safety measures in the bill then being considered. The proposal — which included new safety rules on vehicle rollover (which at the time claimed 9,000 lives per year) and roof strength (critical to surviving a rollover crash), and required safety test results to be put on dealer’s window stickers at the point of sale — were common-sense advances for public safety, in Senator McCain’s enlightened view. The measures also received critical support from Senator Mike DeWine, a socially conservative Republican from Ohio, whose young family member tragically had died in an auto crash.

After five years of our work with a group of allies — and with the laudable assistance of the current head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Strickland, who was a Senate staffer for the Committee at the time — the safety rules became law. The auto industry predictably opposed them, and did manage, even after they were enacted, to persuade NHTSA under President Bush to gut a few of them in practice. But in the main, the rules stuck, and when President Obama came to office, it became possible to restore the law’s intent.

It is clear, given the events of the past week and the intense public response to the Sandy Hook shootings, that there is now, for the first time in a long while, an opening for new and more sensible rules to both require and encourage responsible gun ownership. What’s less clear is how new measures could pass in the current climate of polarization in the Congress and in many state-houses.

A sustained campaign to ensure that voters and lawmakers understand the issues in terms of a public safety problem that must be addressed with competent government action and oversight would be a game-changer, and opens the possibility that more reasonable Republicans will vote for needed reforms, or even lead, as Mayor Bloomberg has done. The power of Sandy Hook to change minds has already been shown in statements by conservative commentator Joe Scarborough, and by former gun-rights Democrats like Senators Reid, Manchin and Casey, all of whom have indicated their change of heart on the issue of restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

George Lakoff, in his landmark book on political frameworks, Don’t Think of an Elephant, describes how progressives and conservatives use different family models to understand the proper role for government. While progressives use a “nurturing” model, conservatives have in mind the “strict father” who sets out the rules for the family. Although Lakoff doesn’t spend much time meditating on the multiple dimensions of this father figure in his book, what I have observed in pushing for public safety reforms and trying to work on a bi-partisan basis is this: embedded in the conservative vision of this “strict father” is a strong duty to protect the family from harm.

When no one can ensure safety and public health without government action, “nanny state”-type objections become irrelevant for most reasonable people, many of whom are independent or Republican voters. Over time, the new standards for public safety become habit for both industry and individuals — a benefit that saves lives without anyone even noticing. Seat belt laws — which were so controversial that their enactment required a state-by-state strategy focused first on laws requiring children to be buckled up — are now ho-hum stuff, Senator Allen’s knee-jerk speech notwithstanding.

Fixing our nation’s gun problem should also, someday off in the foreseeable future, be nothing more than a rather boring set of rules overseen by a decently funded, well-run federal agency with state-level support and assistance. Adequately trained hunters and sportsmen should be able to license a gun when they want to, suitable for those purposes, while criminals and people deemed mentally incompetent should not.

The paranoia that is driving up gun purchases — and profits for gun manufacturers and dealers — over the past week (and the years since Obama was elected) is unwarranted. And no one should even have to think about whether a bullet-proof backpack for a six-year-old (!) is a good use of $200 when basically almost anything else would be a better Christmas present.

Sadly, we are now far from that day. The federal regulator in charge of guns works part-time, and lobbying by the National Rifle Association has blocked all attempts to confirm a permanent executive to the post, holding up Senate confirmations under two Administrations. As I wrote in my last post, and as further explained here, the NRA’s efforts have also meant that the agency is poorly funded and equipped for its assignment, legally unable to even collect basic data on the number and type of guns sold, to keep them out of the hands of people deemed mentally incompetent by another government agency, or to evolve new and better monitoring systems.

Sensible safety measures regarding gun sales will save the lives of children in all of our communities. A recent Children’s Defense Fund report dedicated to Trayvon Martin that examined gun-related deaths in 2008 and 2009 found the following shocking facts:

  • The total number of preschool-age children killed by guns during those years — 173 — was nearly double the number of law-enforcement officers — 89 — killed in the line of duty.
  • African-American children and teens represented 45 percent of all guns deaths in their age group in 2008 and 2009, but only 15 percent of the total U.S. population of children.
  • The top cause of death for black teens ages 15 to 19 was gun homicide, while for white teens it was motor vehicle accidents followed by gun homicides.
  • More children and teens died from gunfire in 2008 and 2009 — 5,750 — than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Among 23 high-income countries in the world scholars have studied, the United States is home to 80 percent of all gun deaths, and 87 percent of all gun deaths of children younger than 15.

The risks to our children and their safety from our virtually unrestricted trade in guns is indisputable, and the chance to act is now. Despite how it seems after the fact, no safety or public health advance is easy or lacking in controversy at the time. Yet such moments present an opportunity to speak to people in a compelling way about how communities — and families — must come together to save lives and protect our children from harm.

With a record-high 53 percent of American voters saying in a new poll that the Republican party is now “too extreme” and public polls showing widespread support for restrictions, it’s also an opportunity for more reasonable lawmakers to lead by showing that they are willing to put public safety ahead of their political backers and the profits of the gun industry. Caring for our children is a bi-partisan activity: it’s about time it looked like one.

Newtown: Crying for Change

Bushmaster AR15

Bushmaster AR15 (Photo credit: aconaway1)

Today, the funerals began.

A friend with two young children told me today that she still can’t look at any of the news without losing it. I’ve been intermittently crying over my keyboard as well, clicking through article after article, looking for answers.

The two of us are not alone, of course. It’s been another day of sadness for the country. As one small indicator, my neighborhood’s parenting list serv — which includes thousands of people — is in an uproar, with people debating the gun control and mental health issues, inviting each other to rallies and vigils, and then this, just today:

I have utter contempt for anyone not screaming bloody murder for gun control. Utter, total contempt. I despise you.

Disrespectfully and at war with you,

[her actual name]

People are obviously upset. On the list serv, there has also been a predictable, though less heated, conversation about whether a parenting listserv is an appropriate place for a debate over gun control. On that one, it seems to me, those who see the lack of sensible gun control measures in the U.S. as a public health and safety problem — and, more pointedly, as a threat to our children — have the better argument.

Is gun control a parenting issue? In a word, yes. Though I would never use the bellicose words of the angry parent from the list-serv — let’s not invent another “war,” please — as Lisa Belkin wrote for Huffington Post, enacting reasonable measures to limit access to guns is a common-sense way to better protect our children from harm. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof compared the need for better gun control laws to the steps we take to ensure driving safety, like measures such as graduated driving programs for teens.

But it was actually the President who saw and felt the impact of the tragedy as a parent, first and foremost, in his emotionally laden initial response to the news. He said:

“Each time I learn the news I react not as a president, but as anyone else would — as a parent. And that was especially true today,” Obama said. “I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.”

He’s right, of course. The grief is overwhelming. And while parents are certainly not the only ones heartbroken by the incredible loss in Newtown, they have also been at the center of the coverage — from the amazing grace of Robbie Parker, the grief-stricken father who, while mourning his 6-year-old, mentioned the suffering of the Lanza family, to the pressing and urgent questions about Adam Lanza’s relationship with his mother, her enthusiasm for guns, and what events could have led to such violence.

Indeed, parenting is a powerful metaphor. A parent carries both duty and responsibility, and wields love in the form of judgment and compassion. A parent is fundamentally vulnerable to the world and its risks for his or her child, and must do what they can to protect their child from harm. With schools, we say that they are, legally speaking, in loco parentis, or, quite literally, local parents.

The goal of good parenting is to balance freedoms with an accurate assessment of the possibility for harm, and to make sound decisions that allow children to assume responsibility if and when they are ready. There are limits to the power of this love, obviously, as we cannot protect our children from everything, or sometimes, even from the threats they pose to themselves. And sometimes we are too exhausted to do the smaller tasks well. But we all understand that we must try, and must try to get it right, as our first moral calling.

It is self-evident that children should be able to go to school without a risk that they will encounter an armed gunman. Or to the mall. Or to the movies. Yet each of these public spaces have been invaded by murderous madmen just this year. This is unacceptable, and we should no longer accept it with passivity, excusing inaction by politicians and regulators. In fact, to do so would for us be to fail a basic obligation of parenting: to do all we can to keep our children — and the children of other people — safe.

Good parenting decisions require sound information. We ask: what are the risks? How many guns are there in the country? In my state? Who owns them and what kind? What assurances do we have — in the form of background checks or training — that they will not be used against our children, intentionally or by accident? What legal restrictions keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill?

Yet none of these fundamental questions can be answered today. This is the first problem we have to solve, together. The federal government has no way of knowing even how many guns are produced and sold each year — because the gun manufacturing lobby long ago made it impossible, under federal law, to collect this information. In Virginia, the gun lobby got all of the historical gun ownership records destroyed.

The federal ban and related state bans actually prevent authorities from centralizing gun sales records in order to effectively keep them out of the hands of criminals or those deemed mentally incompetent. This federal bar on obtaining clear information must be addressed by Congress, which re-enacts this ridiculous law as part of an annual appropriations bill each year.

The government’s hands are elaborately tied in other ways as well. Back in 1986, the National Rifle Association and gun lobby won a substantial victory over public safety when it was able to enact the “Firearm Owner’s Protection Act,” or FOPA. As chronicled in this disturbing report by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the FOPA “seriously undermined law enforcement’s ability to curb gun trafficking and crack down on rogue gun dealers who supply the criminal market.”

The FOPA does several extraordinary things — tying the hands of federal authorities and removing existing protections. As described in the report:

On May 19, 1986, President Reagan signed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act into law. The FOPA repealed important components of federal gun laws, making it easier for criminals to buy weapons and more difficult for law enforcement to prosecute gun sellers who supply the criminal market. Three major changes severely handcuffed federal gun law enforcement.

The FOPA:

1. Set an extraordinarily high burden of proof to prosecute violations of federal gun laws and revoke federal firearm licenses, requiring the government to show that a defendant “willfully” violated federal law;

2. Severely restricted the ability of ATF to conduct inspections of the business premises of federally licensed firearms dealers; and

3. Allowed unlicensed individuals to sell their firearms as a “hobby” without a federal firearms license, thus avoiding meaningful regulations.

Due to the FOPA and the information collection bans, the NRA’s lobbying successes cast a cloud over the government’s enforcement of existing laws and obscure their ability to create new and sounder systems to track the flow of guns and dangerous ammunition, and to keep them out of the hands of criminals and those with serious mental health problems.

Even with all of the absurd handicaps, there is still an agenda for the Justice Department, independent of the need for Congressional action. Notably, it was drawn up after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and included:

a detailed list of steps the government could take to expand the background-check system in order to reduce the risk of guns falling into the hands of mentally ill people and criminals.

Sadly, it was then summarily shelved as the Department came under fire for the Fast and Furious debacle and electoral politics took over. But the ideas made sense, focusing on:

… ways to bolster the database the F.B.I. uses for background checks on gun purchasers, including using information on file at other federal agencies. Certain people are barred from buying guns, including felons, drug users, those adjudicated mentally “defective,” illegal immigrants and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence.

For example, the study recommended that all agencies that give out benefits, like the Social Security Administration, tell the F.B.I. background-check system whenever they have made arrangements to send a check to a trustee for a person deemed mentally incompetent to handle his own finances, or when federal employees or job applicants fail a drug test. It also proposed setting up a system to appeal such determinations….

The study also proposed that Congress set up grants for states that submit state law enforcement information, expand the list of gun-related transactions that require background checks to private sellers, and increase the penalties for people who “act as “straw” buyers for others who would have been blocked by a background check.”

All these seem like a no-brainer to me. And the best part is that at least the first one requires no Congressional action. The kicker? The article notes that the one federal department — the Department of Veterans Affairs — that does currently share information is under threat from a Congressional bill to block it:

In 2008, Congress called upon federal agencies that might know whether someone is mentally ill to make sure the F.B.I. database had that information. But most agencies that have such information — as varied as Social Security and the Railroad Retirement Board — have yet to comply.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, by contrast, does share its data about instances in which benefit checks are sent to a trustee because a recipient has been deemed mentally incompetent. Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill, the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, that would end the practice.

All this makes clear, parents can’t do it alone. No family is an island. Parents need the government to do its job — proper security measures in schools, sufficient tracking and training and registration for safe gun ownership, and a far more robust system of support for parents whose children are affected by mental illness. My heart was broken all over again by this mom’s desperate plea for assistance with her frightening child, and by her description of the impossibility of getting real help for him outside a prison term. Mental health parity is still more concept than reality, and figuring out effective supports for families and children in trouble must be part of a compassionate, responsible approach that both cares for these individuals and keeps us all safe.

If parents band together, the NRA is a political bully that can be stopped. 
Few now recall that the NRA’s transformation from a hunter’s advocacy group into a merciless, unreasonable political machine was as recent as 1977, when hardliners accomplished a coup in the “Cincinnati Revolt” at the organization’s annual meeting.Yet even today, the membership is not aligned with the organization’s political posturing and lobbying goals, which are a better fit for shady gun dealers and manufacturers than a typical gunowner. When you delve a little, it turns out that even NRA members support reasonable constraints on gun ownership, contrary to the NRA’s assertions. As Daniel Webster explains:

Recent poll numbers from Gallup suggesting that fewer Americans want to strengthen our gun laws should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly with respect to policies designed to keep guns from dangerous people. A Frank Luntz survey found, for example, that 3 out of every 4 N.R.A. members favored a system that required all prospective gun buyers to pass a criminal background check.

In addition, large majorities of N.R.A. members support employee screenings at gun stores, mandating reporting of stolen firearms, prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms and prohibiting violent misdemeanants from receiving permits to carry concealed guns. These measures are not in place in most states and are vigorously opposed by N.R.A. leaders and lobbyists.

The NRA and gun rights supporters were notably absent over the weekend from the television talk shows, despite multiple invitations, and most appear to be keeping a very low profile. Even the NRA’s social media outreach has virtually “gone dark.” Fox News evidently had to suppress talk of gun control, and did so despite Rupert Murdoch’s apparent support for restrictions.

This all makes sense.  When conservative commentator and NRA supporter Joe Scarborough suddenly saw the threat to his own children — thinking as a parent — everything changed.

Could that be because the assertions about “Second Amendment” freedoms won’t stand up to scrutiny from an angry, despairing public? Despite its rhetorical power even in places like Newtown before this incident, the gun lobby’s central narrative about an armed citizenry’s essential role in securing our freedoms is historically fradulent, as Josh Marshall argues in his column mocking it as a “unicorn.”

And the much bally-hooed political strength of the NRA in influencing election outcomes — the stuff of mid-90s Beltway mythology — is also demonstrably false, according to political scientists and common sense analysis of electoral results. Next time, we should look past the NRA’s own self-serving braggadocio to the facts. In the most recent election, as Paul Waldman explains, their efforts were a bust:

This year, the N.R.A. spent over $13 million in a failed attempt to defeat President Obama. In the Senate, the group spent over $100,000 in eight races trying to elect their favored candidates. Seven of the eight lost, most by comfortable margins.

Yet the myth itself may be the greatest impediment to Democratic leadership — and actually may feed the poll results, which show signs of neglect from the gun control side, as Nate Silver’s graphs depict here. Waldman continues:

Gun advocates note that when surveys ask broad questions on gun control, more Americans say they are against it than for it. But that can’t be a result of our national debate. The last time we really debated the issue – in the 1990s – support for restrictions rose. But after the N.R.A. successfully convinced Democrats that they lost Congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000 because of the gun issue (contentions contradicted by the evidence), Democrats retreated from the issue in fear. So in recent years, the debate has sounded like this: Gun advocates say Democrats are sending jackbooted thugs to take away everyone’s guns, and Democrats assure everyone they have no plans to do anything of the sort. So it’s not surprising that support for “gun control” has fallen.

Which is not to say that the NRA is not a bully. Just ask Debra Maggert, a Republican state lawmaker from Tennessee who was viciously attacked for her actions in support of a modest amendment on a gun bill, despite her lifelong membership in the NRA. As she put it:

Because of N.R.A. bully tactics, legislators are not free to openly discuss the merits of gun-related legislation. …

The N.R.A.’s agenda is more about raising money from their members by creating phantom issues instead of promoting safe, responsible gun ownership.

Luckily, parents are experts at standing up to bullies. As I’ve seen many times in my career in Congress, when compelling issues of public safety are framed appropriately as sensible protections, even some dyed-in-the-wool conservatives will see the issue correctly.

In that vein, I’ll give the last word to our newly enlightened friend, Joe Scarborough, who, noting that his children were around the same ages as the Sandy Hook victims, said it well earlier today:

I knew that day that the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want, that I demand for my children. Friday changed everything. It must change everything. We all must begin anew and demand that Washington’s old way of doing business is no longer acceptable. Entertainment moguls don’t have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America. And our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want.

It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas. It’s time for politicians to start focusing more on protecting our schoolyards than putting together their next fundraiser.

Amen, my brother, amen. I’ll see you at the vigil.

Credit: Riley Skidmore