Eric Mink: Gun owners get it

By ERIC MINK

It’s simply a fiction that gun owners oppose most proposals to reduce gun violence in the United States. In fact, American gun owners are just like their fellow Americans in generally supporting most of the current ideas being considered for new federal legislation.

Indeed, when it comes to fighting gun violence, it would not be overstating the case to say that gun owners have more in common with non-gun owners than they do with national lobbying groups that supposedly represent their interests, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

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According to a survey conducted early in January and released on Jan. 14 by the highly regarded Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:

• 85 percent of gun owners and 87 percent of non-gun owners favor extending mandatory background checks to gun transactions between private parties and so-called hobbyist sellers. Federal law already requires licensed firearms dealers to conduct such checks through the computerized National Instant Criminal Background Check System. (It typically takes about 90 seconds.) But private exchanges and deals with non-licensed sellers operating out of gun shows and elsewhere may account for as much as 40 percent of the gun sales in America each year, and they currently are exempt from the background check system. That’s not a loophole; that’s a sinkhole. The lobbying groups oppose extending background checks.

• 54 percent of gun owners and 62 percent of non-gun owners favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons. The gun-owner percentage favoring a ban dips to a still-substantial 43 percent if the question describes the weapon as “assault-style,” rather than “semi-automatic.” The NRA and NSSF oppose a ban.

• 49 percent of gun owners and 58 percent of non-gun owners favor a ban on auto-feed ammunition clips containing more than 10 bullets. Thirty-round and even 100-round clips have been used in several mass killings, including the horrifying Dec. 14 slaughter of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The NRA and NSSF oppose the ban.

• 90 percent of gun owners and 76 percent of non-gun owners favor preventing people with mental illness from buying guns. In some circumstances, current federal law disqualifies people with severe mental illness from buying a firearm, and background checks are supposed to reject their purchase applications. But some relevant court-related mental health information doesn’t get into the system for reasons ranging from lack of clarity in the law to lack of state resources to simple lack of commitment. Some new legislative proposals would expand the disqualifying criteria, clarify state responsibilities and establish strong incentives for states to participate. 

The gun lobbying groups say they favor this idea, but it’s unclear that they would back the tough legislation necessary to get all 50 states to provide the data. Under current law, many states do not.

• 60 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of non-gun owners favor creation of a federal database that tracks gun sales. The idea is that an efficiently designed, computerized national database, with appropriate privacy safeguards, would help law enforcement agencies develop investigative leads in real gun crimes, track real criminals and deliver real justice.

The NRA and NSSF generally oppose record keeping and databases, reflecting the decidedly un-real beliefs of extreme gun-rights advocates that such records would further the supposed government conspiracy to seize all private firearms and transform America into a totalitarian state.

Imagined plots notwithstanding, a separate survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Jan. 28 asked similar questions about proposals to reduce gun violence and got responses similar to the Pew Research findings.

The effectiveness of existing gun laws, including those authorizing background checks and anti-trafficking efforts, is undermined by provisions Congress has inserted at the behest of gun lobbyists. Congress likewise obliged the gun industry in 1976 when it exempted firearms and ammunition from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It did so again in 1996 when it passed an amendment that has intimidated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding scientific research into firearm-related issues. And when Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, it granted immunity to gun manufacturers and sellers from many forms of product liability lawsuits.

Let’s be honest: Even if Congress now bans semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity clips and improves and expands the background check systems, sometime in the future another disturbed individual will go on a rampage with guns and kill a lot of innocent people, some of whom will be children. Parents, friends, spouses, lovers, families, communities and our country again will be devastated.

And even if members of Congress — who know better, after all — stop quaking before the gun lobby and the conspiracy extremists and put teeth into flawed laws against straw-party gun trafficking, deadly weaponry still will find its way into the hands of thugs, robbers, rapists and killers in St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Tucson, and perpetrators and innocents alike will be cut down in senseless, freakish sideshows of gunfire.

New laws won’t eliminate the carnage. But slower weapons and smaller clips will lower the awful casualty counts at mass shootings. More comprehensive background checking will deny legal guns to more emotionally charged previous violators, domestic abusers and deeply troubled souls off their meds. Smarter statutes with meaningful penalties for straw-party trafficking would turn a high-profit, low-risk enterprise into a high-risk, hard-time activity and eventually cut into illegal gun sales. So maybe by 2015, there’ll be fewer impulse-driven suicides by firearms than the 19,766 there were in 2011, fewer homicides than the 11,101 people who died by the gun that same year, fewer thousands upon thousands left wounded for life, inside and out.

The violent impulse runs deep in the human psyche, and there is nothing about being American that immunizes us from the darker angels of our nature. Violence shadowed the colonial experience and westward expansion and sustained slavery and the random brutality of the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Today, we encounter violence of both body and spirit as we struggle for economic survival, dignity and human decency.

The Supreme Court settled the constitutional question in 2008: The Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to keep and bear arms “in defense of hearth and home,” as Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 5-4 majority in District of Columbia v. Heller.

But that right is not unlimited, Scalia noted, and the Constitution is not breached if, for example, legislatures outlaw weapons possession by felons and the mentally ill; prohibit concealed, dangerous or unusual weapons; establish gun-free “sensitive areas” like schools; and regulate the commercial sale of weapons.

The District of Columbia rewrote its invalidated gun laws to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling. In October 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit upheld as constitutional new laws requiring the registration of all handguns and banning semi-automatic rifles and clips holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Our legislators should take heart: American gun owners get it, just as the vast majority of their fellow Americans do, even if the gun manufacturers, their obedient lobbyists and their enthusiastic conspiracists do not. The human struggle against violence is a drama whose script we write as we go along. It’s time for a little courage on their part.