JCA member Ben Rosenthal recently shared his thoughts on gun violence prevention on his personal blog, Irrelevant Wisdom, and called for a rational debate that is free of money, politics, and the outrageously powerful NRA. Below are excerpts from Ben's blog post, including links to the relevant articles and studies he cites. For the full text of Ben's blog post, click here.
During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, he said that gun control “deserves a vote.” He said that victims of gun violence, such as Hadiya Pendleton, Gabrielle Giffords, and the Newtown children, deserve a vote. If you haven’t seen this part of his speech, watch it here (start at 52:35).
While I agree that Congress should vote on new gun control legislation, there are many that do not. But I’d like to believe we could all agree that at the very least, gun control deserves a conversation. It deserves to be discussed, fleshed out, and banged around for as long as it takes. Politics and money should not be a part of that discussion. Whether it hurts a congressman’s reelection campaign or takes money out of the gun manufacturers’ pockets should not matter. When it comes to common sense ideas and laws, the discussion should be free and open.
In the wake of the Newtown massacre, there has been a public outcry for decisive gun control measures. Politicians from the local level, like Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, to President Obama have pushed for new laws that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The president announced his specific plans, asking Congress to begin drafting and voting on a bill he can sign into law. The main tenets of his proposal are to require background checks for all gun sales and strengthen the current background checks system; a new, stronger ban on assault weapons; and limit ammunition magazines to ten rounds. Other aspects of his in-depth plan can be seen here.
This is a common sense plan. But when the discussion hits Washington, it won’t have much to do with common sense. Why? The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun manufacturers won’t let it. The NRA and the gun manufacturers have become bedmates. Most NRA members have absolutely no say in the organization’s functioning. Its board members are full of higher-ups at gun manufacturers, such as George Kollitides II, CEO of Freedom Group, which manufactures the Bushmaster semiautomatic that Adam Lanza used in the Newtown massacre. Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, also serves on the board. His company sells scope-mounted ballistics computers that allow amateurs to fire weapons with military-sniper accuracy as if they are playing Duck Hunt.
The NRA’s strength comes from the healthy coffers of the gun manufacturers, and the gun manufacturers’ strength comes from the political power and sway of the NRA. When an $11.7 billion industry is able to have so much political influence, it seems impossible to have a legitimate, common sense conversation about gun control. (If you want a deeper look at the NRA, check out this article in Rollingstone.)
Case in point, Obama’s plan for a stronger ban on assault weapons. Why do we need military-style assault weapons available to the general populous? President Ronald Reagan once said about assault weapons: “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for home defense.” Agreed.
The main reason there will be a serious roadblock to any meaningful assault-weapon legislation is because it will hurt the piggy bank of the gun manufacturers. Of the top fifteen gun manufacturers in the country, eleven of them make and sell assault weapons. One of the most popular weapons, the AR-15, was designed from a military rifle created to kill enemy soldiers at close-to-medium range with little marksmanship. The industry especially loves this weapon because it can be tricked out like a street racer with scopes and lasers. Lanza used one of these and so did James Holmes in Aurora. The assault weapons and the high-capacity magazines so often purchased to go with them are the moneymakers. Gun manufacturers know that if your only business is selling hunting rifles, your financial guns are firing mostly blanks. But if you’re selling assault weapons and high-capacity pistols, business is shooting to kill.
The gun industry has become so powerful that manufacturers, importers, distributors, and dealers are completely immune from any civil liability. You can still sue companies for hot coffee or dangerous toys, but gun companies are safe from all complaints. The gun industry wields such a big stick that politicians duck it. Even President Obama had a very moderate stance on gun control until recently. Politicians know that fighting the NRA and the gun industry is almost a certain pink slip.
So why are people against new legislation that calls for universal background checks on all gun sales? The short answer is actually that few people are. According to a Quinnipiac Poll, background checks on all gun sales is supported by 91 percent of all gun-owning households. So this means that even people that do own guns believe this type of measure is necessary. Doesn’t it make sense that before you purchase a violent weapon, you should be checked for a criminal record? Why should a person be able to buy a gun as easy as buying a pack of gum. Are there other violent weapons out there that can inflict harm but don’t require a background check? Sure. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert mentioned hammers. Those could be violent weapons. But the keyword is could. The inventor of the hammer made it as a tool to build things. The inventor of the gun created it to kill things. We cannot control people who get creative with their weapon choices.
Of course, it would be a complete over-simplification to put the entire gun control problem on the backs of the gun industry and the NRA, just as it’s an oversimplification to say that stricter gun control laws are the only way to ebb the tide of gun violence. We need to address mental health issues. We need to discuss improving our education system as a way to get more young people on a path that won’t lead to a life of crime. The issues are many, and they are complex.
NRA president Wayne LaPierre said in 2012 that “we live in the most dangerous of times.” I don’t agree. In fact, today we live in the safest era of our nation’s history. Crime rates are down. While violence pervades our entertainment industry, we still live in a less violent society than fifty years ago. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot settle. We cannot be satisfied with our success. We must learn from our past. We need to learn from our mistakes and search for solutions to remedy our problems. Gun violence remains a problem. Too many people still die every day at the hands of a gun. There is no perfect solution to solve the problem. There are many issues to discuss. But can’t we at least begin with an honest conversation about small measures toward gun control laws? We’re not talking about Prohibition here. Everybody knows how massively that failed. We’re talking about small measures that might help limit the number of shootings every year. If these new gun control laws fail, then we learn from our mistakes. We try something new. But this seems like a good place and time to start.