No Matter Who Wins In November, Gun Violence Still Needs To End.

Like it or not, the race for the White House is right now in a dead heat.  It’s not so much that Shlump-o is rising in the polls, but that HRC is slowly losing ground.  Even my friends who run the Huffington pollster are showing that over the past five weeks she has lost more than he has gained. So just as the Gun Violence Prevention (GVP) movement needs to suggest an intelligent and reasonable (read: it could pass) gun bill based on the premise that Hillary will still win, they also need to begin thinking about developing a post-election stance and agenda in case he whose real name is unmentionable chalks up the big W on November 8th.

hillary3           I know, I know, she’s still in the lead and the debate season has yet to begin. But the emails and her health issues didn’t help and all of a sudden a lead in Ohio has disappeared; what looked like a good shot in North Carolina and Florida is moving the other way.  Without those three states, particularly the Buckeye State, things don’t look all that good.  I’m not saying that we will be listening to an inaugural speech on January 20, 2017 that will commence with a recitation of the 2nd Amendment; I am saying right now that I wouldn’t necessarily give Mrs. Clinton the short odds.

My GVP friends need to ask themselves what they might do if the unthinkable becomes the thinkable over the next four years.  Because the truth is that even if our President didn’t have enough chips to pass Manchin-Toomey, he still has been a consistent and continuous voice on the question of gun violence, and one should never underestimate the value of the ‘bully pulpit’ when it comes to shaping public opinion about guns or anything else. So GVP may have to craft new messaging about gun violence that will not have the blessing or support of the Chief Executive, and what follows are some (albeit very) preliminary suggestions for what that messaging might contain:

  • Let’s stop venerating the 2nd Amendment. Enough is really enough.  The 2nd Amendment does not ‘guarantee’ our liberties; it doesn’t ‘protect us’ from terrorism or other threats.  It is simply a law which, according to the Supreme Court, allows Americans to keep a handgun in their homes for self-defense.
  • Let’s stop pretending that there is a difference between accidental shootings and intentional use of guns in homicides, suicides or aggravated assaults. You don’t make your home ‘safer’ by locking up your guns.  You make your home safe by not owning a gun.
  • Let’s stop promising everyone that gun violence can be reduced by limiting handgun and assault rifle magazine capacity to 10 rounds. What makes guns lethal is how they were designed, not how many rounds can be fired before it’s time to reload.

I’ve been in the gun business one way or another for more than fifty years and I don’t believe there’s some kind of ‘middle ground’ when it comes to the issue of guns.  Either you own them or you don’t; and if you do own them, at least you should have the honesty and the brains to admit that your guns represent a risk that could be completely eliminated if the guns weren’t there.  And that’s what GVP may be facing next year – a President who actually believes that guns don’t represent any risk at all.

But why wait until next year to take a firm and unyielding stance on the issue of guns? Because the truth is that what is really deplorable (to quote a certain Presidential candidate) is that more than 100,000 Americans are killed or badly injured with guns every year.  This extraordinary level of violence is what makes America truly exceptional, and there’s no reason to wait until the results are in on November 8th before figuring out what needs to be done.

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Does The NRA Really Own The Gun Debate? Even Gun Owners Don’t Necessarily Agree.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, public opinion polls appeared to show widespread support for strengthening gun laws that would make it more difficult for ‘prohibited persons’ to gain access to guns.  In particular, support was strongest for an extension of the NICS background check system to cover most secondary transfers of firearms beyond the initial, counter-top transfer that is covered now. It was this public sentiment which led to the crafting of such legislation, known as Manchin-Toomey, which nevertheless fell short of the votes needed to move the bill through the Senate in April, 2013.

One of the post-Newtown polls showing wide, public support for expanded background checks was conducted by researchers at the Bloomberg Public Health School at Johns Hopkins University, and now that I’ve mentioned the unmentionable, those readers in the pro-gun community will please do everyone a favor and keep their comments to themselves.  The bottom line from this survey was that gun owners and non-gun owners expressed similar degrees of support for universal background checks, prohibitions on ownership for persons convicted of violating domestic restraining orders and mandatory sentences for gun traffickers.  Where significant differences appeared between the two groups, however, involved ‘bans’ on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; the word ‘ban’ being toxic to gun owners but much less concerning to those who don’t own guns.

assault                The Bloomberg group has just released a new poll which, in terms of methodology and sampling, more or less replicates the same poll that was published in 2013.  It will shortly appear in the journal Preventive Medicine, but I was able to examine an advance copy of the text. The authors note that in the intervening two years since their last survey, public opinion appears to have shifted away from more gun regulations and is now swinging towards stronger support of ‘gun rights.’  But comparing such data to the more specific policy-oriented questions which comprise this new survey is really oranges versus apples, since such phrases as ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control’ are simply too vague and too loaded to explain much about public opinion at all.

The new Bloomberg survey shows that there remains a basic bedrock of public opinion that expanding background checks to secondary gun transfers is a good thing to do.  In 2013, support for this measure among gun owners and non-gun owners was above 80%, both numbers shifted only slightly in the current survey and the difference between gun owners and non-gun owners was negligible at best.  On the other side of the ledger, i.e., banning assault rifles and high-capacity mags, there was again a decisive difference between gun owners who said ‘no’ and non-gun owners who said ‘yes,’ although in this case the percentage of non-gun owners who favored  weapon and ammunition bans appears to have slipped.

What I find significant is that 45% of gun owners in both surveys support bans on the sale of assault rifles and high-cap mags.  Researchers who focus on policy issues traditionally look for majority opinion as a guide to what may or may not be possibly changed in the public domain.  But the fact that slightly less than half of all gun owners support the ban on assault rifles is a finding which needs to be considered on its own terms.

I can’t think of a single issue that has generated more noise and more hype in the gun community than the issue of assault rifles over the last several years.  From the phony attempt by the NSSF to dress up these guns as ‘modern sporting rifles,’ to the prancing around by Colion Noir, the industry has done everything it can to promote these guns as akin to motherhood and apple pie.  That nearly 50% of gun owners don’t buy this nonsense should give pause to those who still regard the NRA as a behemoth when it comes to influencing public opinion about guns.  To me, it’s more like a case of the emperor without clothes.

Why Wait To Ask Congress For Universal Background Checks?

Shannon Watts just gave a detailed and articulate response to the Pew poll which shows that a slim majority of Americans now believe that “gun rights” are more important that “gun control.”  And as Shannon points out, the either-or question makes it really impossible for any poll respondent to address the fact that supporting the 2nd Amendment doesn’t ipso facto mean that someone  also can’t support common-sense measures to curb gun violence, like expanded background checks.

At this point the strategy of Shannon and other gun-sense advocates appears to focus on policies enacted at the state level (e.g., expanding background checks) combined with localized, grass-roots efforts to engage corporations like Target and Starbucks to subscribe to gun-free zones.  Given the 2013 defeat of Manchin-Toomey, energies at the federal level appear to be more distant and long-term, with the goal towards electing members of Congress who might eventually vote the other way. On the other hand, I happen to think that Manchin-Toomey was not quite the NRA bone-crusher that it was described to be.  If anything, I was surprised at the closeness of the Senate vote and I’m not sure that gun control at the federal level is as dead as many on both sides would like to believe.

         Shannon Watts

Shannon Watts

The fact is that had background checks been extended to cover all private transactions, and if, as Shannon says, private transactions account for 40% of all movement of guns, then what Manchin-Toomey represented was an enormous expansion of government control over what gun owners can and cannot do with their guns. This would have been the fourth time that the federal government, beginning in 1938, regulated the ownership and transfer of civilian guns, but in all three prior instances, the regulation was aimed at the behavior of federally-licensed dealers and said nothing about the behavior of gun owners themselves.

The 1938 law created the federal gun license and mandated that dealers could only sell guns to residents of their own state.  The original federal firearms license, or FFL, cost one buck.  The 1968 law, known as GCA68, established certain categories of ‘prohibited persons,’ i.e., felons, mentally ill, drug addicts, fugitives, et.al., but again prohibited federally-licensed dealers, not individual gun owners, from engaging in transactions with such individuals and also prohibited private individuals from buying mail-order guns if they came from another state.  Finally, the 1993 Brady Bill updated the process that allowed dealers to determine by contacting the FBI at the point of sale whether the purchaser was telling the truth about not being prohibited from owning a gun.

The bill proposed after Sandy Hook was a horse of a different color altogether.  It left government regulation of federal dealers intact but for the first time gave government the right to regulate the behavior of gun owners themselves as to how, when and where those selfsame gun owners could sell or acquire guns.  In one fell swoop, the government would go from looking over the dealer’s shoulder while a transaction was being conducted inside the shop, to looking over the shoulder of every gun owner if/when that owner decided to make any change in the number or type of guns that he owned.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not making any kind of argument against the reasonableness of universal background checks.  What I am suggesting, however, is that extending background checks to almost all gun transactions is almost a tectonic change in the regulatory authority of the Federal government, and I don’t know any changes of such scope that happen all at once.

The bill that became GCA68 was first introduced in 1963.  The Brady Bill spent six years floating around Congress before it became law.  Both were signed by Presidents who just happened to come from gun-rich states.  I’m not so sure that energetic and effective advocates like Shannon need to forget going directly to Congress until after 2016.  After all, like we say in the gun business, it never hurts to show the product, even if this year’s buying season has come and gone.

 

 

 

Guess Who’s Joining Bloomberg’s Gun Crusade Now?

Until recently, conventional wisdom had it that nobody could go up against the NRA and win.  They had too much money, too much clout, too many politicians doing their bidding and, most of all, a dedicated and energized membership that could swing public opinion and election results their way. They were so strong and so effective that in 2013 they even kept the mildest legislative compromise from getting through Congress after the horrifying tragedy at Sandy Hook.

gates                But that was then and this is now.  And the now I am referring to is the news that another billionaire named Bill Gates has teamed up with Mike Bloomberg to challenge the NRA in a Washington State initiative that would require background checks for all firearm transfers conducted within the state.  Now Bloomberg may be a pretty rich guy, make no mistake about it, but he’s still in the minor leagues when compared to Gates who is not only worth somewhere north of 60 billion real dollars, but has spent the last decade doing a pretty effective job of giving it away.  When he decides to get his money behind something, we’re not talking about the 50 million that Bloomberg is putting up this year to deal with guns, we’re looking at the 1.5 billion that the Gates Foundation spent last year on only one of four major initiatives – global development – alone.

In 2012, including a couple of million thrown into the pot by the Koch Brothers, the NRA spent slightly more than $25 million on donations to candidates and political ads.  That kind of money buys a lot of traction in Washington but it’s chump-change compared to what Gates could pony up if he decided that gun control was going to help makes his day.  And just so you don’t think that putting a hundred or two hundred million out there might strain Bill and Melinda’s cash flow, let’s not forget that their best buddy and Trustee of the Gates Foundation is none other than Warren Buffet, who might just be worth another 60 billion, give or take a billion here or there.

Sometimes it’s difficult to translate large sums of money into something that we can understand, but look at it this way.  The combined net worth of Gates, Buffet and Bloomberg, if considered as equivalent to an annual GDP, would make these three guys the fiftieth wealthiest country on Earth, somewhere around Qatar, Portugal or Peru.  According to the 2010 financial filing made by the NRA (the latest I could find online), the outfit had revenues of slightly under 230 million which represents roughly 20% of Microsoft’s revenues each week!  In 2014 Berkshire-Hathaway looks like it will have weekly revenues of nearly 4 billion and Bloomberg L.P. is also no slouch.  We’re not talking here about the nickels and dimes that the NRA carts off to the bank.  When it comes to putting up dough for whatever Gates, Buffet and Bloomberg want to promote, those guys are the bank.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not in favor of buying elections or using deep pockets to influence electoral outcomes either from the Left or the Right.  But the NRA’s biggest problem is they really can’t reach out to anyone who doesn’t own a gun.  Meanwhile, the gun control folks have suffered over the years from the waxing and waning of public concern about guns that usually only spikes upward when a horrifying or high-visibility shooting takes place.  Guess what?  The kind of money represented by Gates, Buffet and Bloomberg can go a long way towards funding ongoing, grass-roots activities that the NRA would find it difficult, if not impossible to match. In the last month, Bloomberg’s group  Everytown forced Target to declare itself a gun-free zone, and now they are trying to add Kroger to the gun-free list as well.  Notice any big retailers inviting open-carry activists into their stores?