Images from the web site of Crickett Firearms, which sells guns for kids.
You may have heard the story of Caroline Sparks, the 2-year-old Kentucky girl who was killed this week when her brother, all of 5 years old himself, took the rifle he got for his birthday and shot her in the chest. I suppose we should be thankful this kind of thing doesn't happen even more often; as a Kentucky state trooper told CNN, "In this part of the country, it's not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun." I'm sure that when gun rights advocates heard the story, they said, "Oh geez, here we go again." They'd have to deal yet again with people being upset when innocents get killed with guns. They'd have to explain that as tragic as Caroline's death is, it doesn't mean that we should change the law on background checks. After all, that 5-year-old boy got his gun from his parents, not at a gun show.
Whatever you think about gun advocates, could they be right on this point? Sure, it's a little rich coming from people who are constantly stoking fears of home invasions, fascist takeovers, and utter societal breakdown to justify our current lax gun laws. But do we get into trouble when our arguments about public policy are based on emotionally vivid but unrepresentative individual stories? Maybe.
Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.
The current yelling match about guns is distinguished by two truths disconcerting to each side. As loony as the argument sounds after a history of 224 years, the faction that opposes any oversight or management of gun rights is correct about one thing. The Second Amendment doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to hunt. It doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to shoot a thief or intruder. Derived from a similar stipulation in the English Bill of Rights of the 1600s, the Second Amendment exists for the same reason as the rest of the Bill of Rights—to further define the relationship between individual freedom and state power, and in this case to prohibit the state from unilaterally disarming the citizenry.
The United States hasn’t passed significant national gun laws in more than a decade, and despite urging from President Obama and other lawmakers, there’s little sign we’re close to new legislation. A large part of this has to do with the continued influence of the National Rifle Association, which has announced its complete opposition to new gun control laws.
At TheWashington Post, Greg Sargent reports that five red-state Democrats—Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—have been unwilling to voice support for expanding the background-check program—"the centerpiece," he writes, "of President Obama's package of gun reforms." Their rationale is straightforward: Supporting this policy might hurt us in our states, or leave us vulnerable to Republican attacks.
You could be forgiven for thinking that recent news out of New York proves gun-rights supporters have lawmakers on the run. In mid-February, 500 outraged opponents of gun restrictions held a rally in Albany’s freezing temperatures to protest the state’s new gun-control regulations passed January 15. The president of a large state gun dealer said on January 21 that tens of thousands of assault rifle owners would boycott an April 2014 registration deadline mandated by the law. An anonymous source in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office responded like a parent who’s given up doing anything about their acting-out teen: “Many of these assault-rifle owners aren’t going to register; we realize that.”
That official called it right. Those who expect the New York SAFE Act— which bans the purchase of new assault weapons and requires registration of those owned before the law took effect—to keep new assault rifles out of New York immediately will probably be disappointed.
Local prosecutors and cops have wide latitude in how aggressively to pursue busts and convictions under state law, says James B. Jacobs, professor of constitutional law at New York University. In a wink and nod to gun-rights supporters, the New York Sheriff’s Association issued a statement on January 25 asserting that the law doesn’t require its members to “go door-to-door to confiscate any weapons newly classified as assault weapons, and [sheriffs] will not do so.” In downstate Ulster County, the district attorney told a local paper that when dealing with otherwise law-abiding citizens who have banned weapons, “(police) will take those items away, but that’s not necessarily something we would prosecute.”
All of that would seem to augur poorly for getting results on the ground with new gun laws in other states. Why pass an assault-weapons ban if it’s honored more in breach than observance?
The gun crowd is so paranoid about the erosion of their Second Amendment rights that they make Chicken Little look like an actuary. The president’s recent gun proposals include initiatives such as expanded background checks, a ban on certain military-type rifles, and limits on the size of magazines. But if you listen to the gun folks, even these tepid proposals are—to quote a past president of the National Rifle Association—“unconstitutional schemes to gut the Second Amendment.” Iowa Senator Charles Grassley accused Obama of thinking “the Second Amendment can be tossed aside.” Any skeptical glance in the direction of that Glock on their hip is worth a Second Amendment yelp.
After a year of violent tragedies that culminated with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, America is finally having a conversation about gun control. For the many who want to decrease access to firearms in the wake of several mass shootings, new laws being proposed around the country to limit and regulate guns and ammunition represent a momentous first step.
On Saturday, just a few days after President Obama put forth 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, approximately 1,000 gun-rights activists gathered at the Texas state Capitol to show their opposition. The protest was one of 49 organized around the country by pro-gun group Guns Across America, but the one in Texas was among the biggest. Signs pronounced assault weapons “the modern musket” and quoted the Second Amendment. Speakers including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Representative Steve Toth argued that gun control had no place in America. “The Second Amendment was an enumeration of a right that I already had received from God,” speaker Ralph Patterson, the McLennan County Republican Party chair, told the crowd. “God gave me the right to defend myself.”
In the wake of Friday’s gruesome tragedy, in which a presumably mentally ill shooter killed 26 Americans in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—including 20 children between the ages of six and seven—it has never been more evident that our nation’s gun laws are in desperate need of reform.Thanks to years of relentless propaganda by the National Rifle Association (NRA) the American people no longer care much for the phrase "gun control," but they do support specific policy proposals in overwhelming numbers. For example, swing-state exit-polling data from the 2012 election indicates that 90 percent of gun owners support requiring background checks on all gun sales, including private sales. Republican pollster Frank Luntz has conducted additional surveys showing broad support for common-sense gun laws even among NRA members.
The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before.
In the last six months I've written a lot about the politics of the gun issue (see here for example), and one of the key data points I keep trying to get people to understand is that gun ownership is actually declining in America and has been for a few decades. Yet there are just as many guns as ever (around 300 million by the best estimates), which means that on average, your typical gun owner now owns more guns than they used to. While no one that I know of has actually figured out the distribution, my guess is that most gun owners still have only one or two guns, while the numbers are being elevated by enthusiasts who think they really haven't guaranteed the safety of their family unless they have enough weaponry to fend off an assault by an entire battalion of the Red Army.
And it's important to understand that the gun lobby (by which I mean the National Rifle Association, similar groups, and the gun manufacturers) are doing everything they can to encourage existing gun owners to buy as many guns as they possibly can. I discuss this in a piece I wrote today for MSNBC's "Lean Forward" blog:
As many pointed out last Friday, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, politics is one of the most important ways in which a democratic society deals with thorny issues—and the regularity of mass killings in the United States is a complicated issue that deserves a political lens. As David Waldman put it, “If you live under a regime of self-government, everything is political. Even the decision to decline to address things politically.”
In many ways, this presidential election features a reversal of a pattern we've gotten used to in recent campaigns. More often than not, it's the Republican who is self-assured and ideologically forthright, while the Democrat apologizes for what he believes, panders awkwardly, and generally acts terrified that the voting public might not like what he has to say. This time around, Barack Obama is the confident candidate, and Mitt Romney is the worried one (which says far more about these two men than it does about this particular historical moment). But there is one major exception to this pattern, on an issue that has re-emerged after being dormant for a decade and a half: guns. It isn't that Romney isn't pandering unpersuasively on the issue.