Supporters of stricter gun control legislation are once again making themselves heard, after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard this week.
Paul Barrett, senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun,” argues that gun control advocates underestimate the grassroots support for gun rights, and overstate the ability of proposed gun control legislation to prevent such shootings.
“Unfortunately, all the participants in this debate — the most vocal participants — tend to go immediately for the most radioactive approach to the issue, rather than going to the more common sense, middle ground approaches,” Barrett told Here & Now. “And that’s why we have no progress.”
Barrett says a more effective way to talk about guns and gun laws is to frame it as a conversation on crime deterrence.
“You can frame advocacy of comprehensive background checks as a purely anti-crime step,” Barrett said. “If you frame it in that narrow way, you make this cause much more rational and you take it away from the second amendment.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Today is the first regular workday at the sprawling Washington Navy Yard - except for Building 197, where Monday's deadly shooting occurred. We now know that 34-year-old Navy contractor Aaron Alexis had mental problems and run-ins with both the law and his naval reserve superiors, but those things weren't enough for officials to revoke the security badge that enabled Alexis to enter Building 197, where he worked.
And he was able to legally buy a Remington 870 Express shotgun in Virginia a few days before the shooting. But the shotgun Alexis used on Monday would not have been banned under gun control legislation that stalled in Congress after the last mass shooting, in Newtown, Conn.
So what now for advocates of gun control, looking to find ways to keep these kinds of mass shootings from happening again? Let's turn to Paul Barrett, senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek as well as the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He joins us from New York. Paul, welcome.
PAUL BARRETT: Thanks, glad to be here.
HOBSON: Well, I have to say my first thought after the shock of this shooting had sunk was nothing is going to change legislatively this time. If it didn't happen after Newtown, why would it happen now?
BARRETT: If you were a betting man, I would say that's the safe bet. And that's good news if you're a gun rights advocate and very bad news if you're a gun control proponent.
HOBSON: Well, you say that the gun control proponents get it wrong. You write that attacking the NRA in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting seems at best like an exercise in irrelevance. Explain what you mean by that.
BARRETT: Well, I think it is playing on the NRA's chosen field of conflict. The NRA is a very potent political organization devoted primarily to raising money and perpetuating political controversy. And if you get into a fight with the NRA, that only pleases the NRA, which turns around and says see, we told you so, our enemies are everywhere, please write us a check and send us more money. See, I told you so. Go out and try to defeat your local congressman who isn't sufficiently fierce on the Second Amendment.
I think a much more promising approach for gun control proponents is to link their cause not so much to the organization the NRA, not to articles of commerce, the guns, and not to gun culture but to talk about steps that would prevent or deter particular kinds of crime, to make the agenda into an anti-crime agenda and try to explain how particular policies would affect particular types of misuse of guns.
HOBSON: Well, what do you mean by that? Explain.
BARRETT: Well, for example, you can frame advocacy of comprehensive background checks as a purely anti-crime step. All you are doing is taking existing law, under which we already, all across the country, do not allow criminals and insane people to acquire new guns, and by the way we don't allow, you know, ex-felons even to possess guns, and you're saying we want to rationalize that law and make it apply across the board so we keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
We have - this has nothing to do with law-abiding gun buyers or owners. It has nothing to do with the NRA. It's to make our streets safe. And I think if you frame it in that narrow way, you make this cause much more rational, and you take it away from the Second Amendment and put it into the realm of how to keep the streets safe.
HOBSON: Well, you say it has nothing to do with the NRA. Wouldn't the NRA fight back against it regardless?
BARRETT: The NRA might fight back against it regardless, but if you made it clear that you were not trying to limit the number of guns or the type of guns that law-abiding people were able to acquire, I think you would have a greater likelihood of diffusing the NRA.
The problem is is that gun control proponents tend to lead very awkwardly. They lash out at the gun culture. They lash out at people who they call cowboys or wackos. They lash out at particular weapons, you know, such as the so-called assault weapon, which is always sort of the first move of the Dianne Feinstein breed of gun control proponent, and that plays right into the hands of Second Amendment advocates who, for example in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, can say, well, look, this guy was very, very lethal with a good old-fashioned shotgun. Surely you're not proposing that we're going to ban shotguns. I mean, in fact the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, after the last round of mass shootings, said everyone should go out and have a shotgun for security reasons.
BARRETT: So, you see, rather than focusing on the type of weapon, rather than focusing on the fact that many people are attached to guns, focus on criminals and insane people and keeping guns out of the hands of kids. Access to guns, it seems to me, is the promising route.
HOBSON: What about that argument, though, that has been made, that nobody needs an assault rifle for their personal use?
BARRETT: You know, I think that that is a provocative and ultimately futile argument to make. Assault weapon is another term for a semi-automatic, military-style rifle. That has become the standard long gun. That is what our troops use. That is what people increasingly use for target shooting, for hunting, and it has become symbolic to pro-gun people of an effort that they claim is underway to take their guns away.
I would just - not that anyone asks me for policy advice - but I'm telling you that the campaign to ban assault weapons is exactly what the NRA would like to see coming from the other side.
HOBSON: We're talking with Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He's author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." And Paul Barrett, I want you to stand by because after the break, we want to talk about money in this game, in this issue, and also the idea of mental health and what could be done on that front. Paul Barrett will be back with us after the break.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Meanwhile some of the stories we're following, in Turkey the lira has fallen to its lowest value in years. Is Turkey headed for a hard landing? And conservation is underway in Brazil for the golden lion tamarind. That's not a lion, it's an endangered monkey with a beautiful mane. These and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Meanwhile, back with more of Jeremy's conversation. We'd love to hear your thoughts on guns and whether or not gun control advocates are expecting too much from gun laws. Weigh in at hereandnow.org, and stay right there for more in one minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation about gun control and gun rights with Bloomberg Businessweek writer and editor Paul Barrett. And Paul Barrett, what about mental health? I read in the New York Times that this is an issue that even a Republican-controlled legislature in Florida has gotten behind, passed a law that extended gun bans to people determined to be a danger to themselves or other or who voluntarily admit themselves to a mental health facility.
That measure won the support of the NRA. What could be done on that issue?
BARRETT: Well, what could be done is both at the state and federal level, we could see governments emulating Florida, as you just mentioned, New York, Connecticut and other states that have already taken action in this regard. And that would be to facilitate and smooth the procedures that exist that allow mental health professionals to get information to law enforcement professionals about people who seem to be in imminent danger and have the law enforcement authorities then have the ability to find out whether the person has firearms and, if they do, separate them from their firearms.
This seems to me to be a reasonable, common-sense, although quite complicated, it's not easy because it raises privacy issues and all kinds of tricky procedural issues, but it seems to me to be a route that we ought to be moving quickly down because particularly in connection with these mass shootings, we find out in the wake of almost all of these things that the individuals involved are severely disturbed, and if we could have just separated them from firearms, perhaps we could stop some, if not all, of these incidents.
HOBSON: Well, are the people who are pushing for assault weapons bans, for example, are they against doing more on mental health?
BARRETT: No, I don't think so. I think there's in fact a broad consensus that we should do something on mental health. I think, however, that has less ideological punch, and for better or for worse, I would say for worse, I think a lot of liberal politicians prefer to stand up and give a stem-winder of a speech attacking guns and people who like guns rather than talking about mental health.
Unfortunately, all the participants in this debate, the most vocal participants, tend to go immediately for the most radioactive approach to the issue rather than going to the more common-sense middle-ground approaches. Rather than steering away from the Second Amendment, they seem to crash right into the Second Amendment, and that's why we have so little progress.
HOBSON: And there is a lot of money in this. We just saw the situation in Colorado, these recalls of these two state senators who backed the state's tough new gun restrictions after Aurora. Is there a way, Paul Barrett, in the minute or so we have left, that we can reach a point where there is safe gun ownership and effective gun rules that satisfy both sides of this?
BARRETT: No, no time soon, and that's because guns and the regulation of guns have come to symbolize a whole range of political issues to many, many Americans. In each generation we tend to have one or two or three issues that become these big wedge issues, and guns have now ascended to that position.
And in fact advocates on both sides don't really want to find a compromise. They want to use this issue as a way to sort of argue about the nature of American culture, the relationship between individuals and the government, the nature of the crime problem, and as a just a pragmatic prediction, we are not going to resolve this anytime soon.
HOBSON: Paul Barrett is assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." The conversation continues at our website, hereandnow.org, also Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Paul Barrett, thank you so much for joining us.
BARRETT: Always glad to be here.
HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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