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Gun Control: Why We Can't All Just Get Along


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we are going to talk about some provocative new research that sheds some light on how personal relationships play a role in getting a job and we'll talk about how that plays out differently or may play out differently for whites and minorities. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we want to continue this conversation about gun safety and gun rights in this country. We just heard from the sister of one of the victims of the Newtown shooting. A number of family members of victims are in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and others. This follows President Obama's visit on Monday to Connecticut, where he pushed Congress to bring some of his proposals up for a vote.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the wake of a tragedy, you'd think this would not be a heavy lift and yet some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about the politics behind this issue, so we're joined now by Paul Barrett. He's an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He's the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun," and he's been following this kind of legislation for years.

Paul, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

PAUL BARRETT: Very glad to be here. Thanks.

MARTIN: When the president referred to political stunts, what's he talking about?

BARRETT: Well, specifically, what he was talking about there was the threat by Republicans or a portion of Republicans in the Senate to filibuster the gun control proposals and prevent the Senate at large from even debating those proposals.

MARTIN: Now, we are hearing now, as you and I are talking, that there is actually a bipartisan deal that would expand background checks. The specific ad would be that background checks would now be required at gun shows and this suggestion is that this compromise might avoid the kind of filibuster that President Obama talked about. Is that about right? What are you hearing about this, and what do you make of it?

BARRETT: I think that that is right. I think it appears that some of the more conservative members of the Republican Party in the Senate may have overplayed their hand in threatening the filibuster. They did not get senators like McCain to go along with them, and we now have this compromise that's been announced, as you said, literally minutes ago by Senators Toomey of Pennsylvania, conservative Republican, and Manchin of West Virginia, who is a moderate to conservative Democrat, both of whom are seen as gun rights proponents. But they have apparently compromised on an idea for expanding background checks so they would apply to so-called commercial sales at gun shows and conducted over the Internet.

MARTIN: It would not apply to friends, so...

BARRETT: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...if you were to sell me a gun, then it wouldn't apply to you or to me.

BARRETT: Precisely. And I thought it was fascinating in your last segment, your heartbreaking interview with the sister of one of the teachers killed in Newtown. She referred specifically to the current lack of background checks. If one neighbor wants to sell a gun to another neighbor, very interesting, very compelling argument she made, but that situation, for better or for worse, would not be affected by this proposal and would remain outside the background check system, so far as I understand it.

MARTIN: But, despite that - and that is noteworthy in part because of the particular circumstances of the Sandy Hook shooting and it seems that the young man, Adam Lanza, took the guns from his mother and she purchased them legally. Despite that, how significant is this as an advance? And, you know, you've been following this for years and one of the interesting things about universal background checks - or nearly universal; As we say, this is not universal since some people still are exempt - that this has been one of those things that many people thought would have passed long before now, but seems to have been stalled. So...


MARTIN: ...what's your assessment of - is this significant or not?

BARRETT: Well, I think it's significant in that there really is very, very broad, powerful public support for expanding background checks. I mean, the national public opinion polls show something on the order of 90 percent or more of people, when asked whether background checks should be comprehensive, say, yes.

Moreover, in the late '90s, even the NRA was in favor of comprehensive background checks. So Wayne LaPierre told Congress that he thought there should be no exceptions and the very fact that we've had to have a fierce debate over this shows how far we've moved toward the pro-gun libertarian anti-regulatory view over the last dozen years.

Moreover, before we get too excited about this possibility of a compromise in the Senate, let's remember that the Democrats control the Senate. They have a majority. So the idea that this provision might pass with a bare majority in the Senate - maybe, we're not sure of that yet - is one thing. How it will fare in the Republican-controlled House is a whole other story and I think it is not particularly likely that a meaningful background check bill will end up on President Obama's desk.

MARTIN: You know, on Monday, you wrote in a piece that - on - that said that, quote, "on gun control, Democrats are grasping at straws," unquote. And it's been reported elsewhere. Politico, for example, said that, during his speech, it seemed that the president was preparing supporters of more restrictionist measures for defeat. So, were you wrong or are you really referring to other measures, like, for example, a lot of people who favor more restrictionist measures would also like to see some limits on the amount of ammunition that one can fire at any one time? The magazine size, for example, even some types of the kinds of battlefield weapons that have now become available to the public?

BARRETT: Well, I don't think I was wrong, you'll probably be shocked to hear. I do think the Democrats are trying to find something they can label gun control, get it passed and declare a political victory. But I'm quite skeptical that even if a law passes, that it's going to have a significant effect on either ordinary street crime - the day in, day out horrible toll of people killed in violent crimes with guns - or on the more exceptional situation like the random mass shooting, which you know, often involves a young man who's determined to commit suicide, take a lot of people with him and is willing to go through a lot of trouble and do a lot of planning to pull that off and...

MARTIN: And the reason you say that is why? That there are already so many guns in circulation in this country that that just - that new measures simply won't be affective? Why do you say that? You just don't feel it'll actually have an effect on what it is that people really care about, which is the level of violence?

BARRETT: Yes. The first cut at the answer is the arsenal that's already in private hands, 300 million firearms that are already out there. The vast majority of them are owned legally in a situation, you know, not dissimilar to the one in Newtown where the mother owned the guns legally. And, unfortunately, the failure, the societal failure was the inability to separate her troubled son from those firearms.

And a second reason why this is unlikely to, I think, have a significant effect is that while we have seen crime rates - ordinary crime rates - go way down, we have not seen - that's over the last 20 years - we have not seen federal gun control change drastically. So I don't think that the imposition of laws that change at the margin, how guns can lawfully be acquired, is going to affect crime rates significantly. Instead, I think there are other factors that have brought crime way down in places like New York, Washington and elsewhere.

MARTIN: Finally, we have about a minute and a half left, Paul. I just have to ask you about the young woman whom we met, Jillian Soto, and I mentioned she's among a number of family members who are fanning out in Washington, and some of them have given some really heart-wrenching testimony to people about this, talking to whoever will listen.

And I'm just interested in your take on whether that matters. I mean, obviously, it matters because we always want to hear from people about their lives and, when something like this happens, we want to hear from them. What does this mean to you? But does it matter in the debate?

BARRETT: I think it's mattered in the sense that without the extraordinary image in our mind of those 20 first graders, we would not be talking about this today on your radio program. The president would not be traveling the country giving impassioned speeches. So, in that sense, it matters a great deal. People are concerned about this.

The problem is that this highly emotional debate may well lead to enactment of a provision or two or three that can be labeled an answer to what happened, but will not have a tremendous practical impact. Some people say that's fine. We'll just do something small and we'll build from there. And I think that's a respectable position. But we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we are answering the big problems by tinkering with these laws.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He's author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He's been following the legislation around gun safety and gun rights for many years now and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Paul Barrett, thank you for joining us.

BARRETT: My pleasure, as always.

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