Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pulling the Gun Lobby Out of the Shadows

On Tuesday Pres. Barack Obama concluded his State of the Union speech with a powerful call for Congress to act on proposed gun violence prevention legislation such as strengthening the background check system and banning high powered military assault type weapons and ammunition. He did so by naming recent victims and their families in Newton, CT, Chicago and Oak Creek, Wisconsin and repeating the litany “They deserve a vote!” Rarely do presidential speeches bring tears to my eyes, but that refrain did.

The significance of Obama’s statement is both substantive and symbolic. Calling upon states to supply names of known offenders and those with mental health issues, and requiring all gun sales, including those at gun shows to go through a background check will not only prevent offenders from purchasing guns, but it will send a message to unscrupulous dealers that looking the other way as straw purchases go down is no longer acceptable. Some of those gun dealers will see a significant cut in their profits if that legislation is enforced. Likewise, banning assault weapons will get some of the most deadly weapons, weapons whose purpose is to kill at any costs, out of general circulation will reduce the likelihood of the mass killings we have repeatedly seen. While critics will say about only 1% of gun-related deaths come from such guns, ask the survivors in Newtown or Aurora how much they care about that 1%.

However, the symbolism of Obama’s statement is even more significant in my view, because for over two decades the gun lobby, including the NRA, the Gunowners of America (GOA) and the gun manufacturers have been operating in a shadow world by paying politicians to just be quiet on guns. They don’t have to be pro-gun, they just are not supposed to talk about it because the arguments for nonrestrictive gun laws are emotionally based and largely built on anecdote and myth. Two examples come to mind.

First, several years ago Congress quietly began to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research on the impact of guns and gun violence on public health. Their research decisively showed that the presence of a gun in a home increases the likelihood that someone in the immediate circle of that home (family, relatives, close friends) will be victim of a gun-related incident. This runs directly counter to the myth that people need guns in their homes to protect from intruders. The intruders are not the ones in danger, the people in the home are. By presidential order the president has begun to restore some of the gun-related research, but Congress can do more to allow us to use science rather than myth to determine or national policies on guns.

A second example is a little known bill called the Tiahrt Amendment  that was an amendment to a 2003 federal spending bill that restricts the ability of law enforcement officers to identify the buyers of guns or require gun dealers to do inventories to see if their guns have been lost or stolen or used in a crime. It also restricts citizens from obtaining information on the source and buyers of guns used in crimes in their communities. This bill provides a “cover” for straw purchasers and the unscrupulous dealers who sell to them.

It is these shadow efforts of limiting research and weakening the powers of law enforcement that make NRA rhetoric such as “we don’t need more laws, we just need to enforce the laws we have” so hypocritical. Even as NRA leaders say such things (and they are still saying them), they are working in the shadows to keep law enforcement from being able to do their jobs.

President Obama’s refrain “They deserve the vote” challenged the gun lobby to come out of the shadows and called on Congress to stop hiding behind their silence. More than his Republican colleagues, the president was calling out his fellow Democrats who since Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election have decided that support for gun prevention legislation was politically unfavorable. So instead of speaking out one way or the other, Democrats, including the President, have remained remarkably silent in the face of recurring incidents of violence in both urban and suburban communities. The president’s message was that Congress can no longer be silent.

The President’s message, though long overdue, was a welcome change. Let us keep the pressure on to make sure that his words will not in themselves merely be symbol, but will move Congress to act clearly and decisively on these issues, and that the members of Congress themselves will have to declare themselves one way or the other on these vital issues

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Where will the Pro-Gun Folks Draw the Line?

Like many folks, I am watching closely as President Obama begins his campaign to reform the gun laws in this country. Because most laws regulating the sale and use of guns are legislated at the state level, there are only a limited number of things he can do; nonetheless, those few things are important. In his White House briefing he outlined four major proposals

- Require that everyone who wants to purchase a gun go through background checks (i.e. closing the gun show loophole);
- Ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines;
- Better train teachers and officials on how to respond to shootings at schools;
- Increase access to mental health services

Also through executive order the president called for increased research on gun related issues and mental health.

Even before his proposals had been made public the NRA and its spokespersons in Congress were criticizing them. When Obama indicated in an interview said that he enjoyed skeet shooting, they scoffed, even after he produced a picture of doing just that. I wondered why the president felt a need to even respond to such criticisms, until I realized he wasn’t trying to answer his critics, but rather discredit them in the eyes of the millions of American who feel confused and ambivalent on the gun issue.

However, I recently got a sense of where the battle lines on this issue will be drawn (I apologize for using such a militaristic metaphor, but that is what this feels like) when I received a letter from my Congressman in response to a letter I had sent him calling for an assault weapons ban. Rep. Pat Meehan represents the 7th District of Pennsylvania, which basically constitutes the western suburbs in the Philadelphia metro area. Rep Meehan is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, a darling of many of the Conservative PACS. In response to my letter Re. Meehan wrote the following:

 “… we need to put an emphasis on what works to keep guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens. As I’ve previously said, I agree with the President that we can and should strengthen the nation’s background check system, filling the current holes and also requiring background checks at gun shows, regardless of whether the seller is licensed or not. Also it is correct o put a focus on mental health, improving care for troubled young people and the prevalence of violent movies and video games in our culture.”

Compared to previous responses I have received from the Congressman, there are some hopeful signs – Rep Meehan is now on record in support of a robust background check system, even at gun shows, a major source of gun sales. However, what is also noteworthy is what is absent from the Congressman’s proposals; he does not speak on the assault weapons ban, nor does he support the president’s call for more research funding or a strengthening of the ATF, which is has been vastly underfunded for years.

Rep. Meehan is a good litmus test for what political conservatives will or will not support. I think we who want to see more robust gun legislation need to see these are where the lines are being drawn. For some bizarre reason, otherwise intelligent men like Pat Meehan will not support the ban on armor piercing bullets or high powered rifles to the general public. He will speak about “enforcing already existing laws” without voting to provide to make that enforcement possible. And despite numerous incidents like Newtown, Aurora and Tucson he will continue to see this gun problem as a “criminal” issue, rather than an issue affecting everyday citizens caught up in our gun-worshipping culture.

In the political world of compromise and give and take, my sense is that conservatives will give a little on the background check issue, and dig in their heels on everything else, especially reinstating the assault weapons ban. They will use the language of “what works” to reduce crime, somehow having this huge blind spot when it comes to high powered weapons in spite several high profile events using those weapons. They will equate someone’s right to own a gun with the right to use a gun whose purpose is only to kill other human beings in a combat situation.

Because of my long involvement with this issue, people have been asking if I think significant changes will come. I don’t think significant changes will come without a real fight and continued pressure on Congresspeople and a continual discrediting of the lies and deception being promulgated by the NRA and other gun-rights groups. In Philadelphia and elsewhere sales at gun shows and gun shops have sky rocketed because of people’s frenzy and fear that someone all rights to own and use gun will be taken away. I don’t see that happening, nor do I worry about it. What concerns me is that those of us who see a major source of the problem as the fascination with violence at the heart of our culture must be committed to a long, arduous process of transformation that will require dedicated efforts to keep the truth and reality of guns’ destruction before the public and more importantly, our representatives in Congress and the White House.

So I took the letter that Rep Meehan sent me turned it over and wrote my response to his response asking why he has not come out in support of the assault weapons ban. The campaign for commonsense gun legislation continues.