Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
For most of my life, the NRA (National Rifle Association) has seemed inconsequential to me. But in the last few years, I have become more interested in its views, especially after the Supreme Court held in 2008 that Washington, D.C., could not prohibit hand guns. Of course, the Supremes (in a majority opinion written by Antonin Scalia) had to ignore normal grammatical forms to conclude that the prefatory clause, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, . . .” did not affect the meaning of the second phrase: “. . . the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
But I don’t want to quibble about grammar when bigger issues are at stake. Three concerns about gun regulation are at the forefront of the gun debate being dominated by the NRA:
1. Should the federal government conduct research into the public welfare aspects of guns?
2. Should all gun sales and transfers require a background check?
3. Should all guns be registered?
Out of fear – real or imagined – the NRA answers “no” to all three questions. Regarding the first question, McClatchy reports that, for the last forty years, the NRA has succeeded in limiting and now even preventing research into the effects of gun use, sales, and crime:
“Each year, lawmakers quietly tuck language into spending bills that restricts the ability of the federal government to regulate the firearms industry and combat gun crime. It’s the reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t research gun violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t use data to detect firearms traffickers, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can’t require background checks on older guns.”
The Center for American Progress and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have identified the following major efforts to prevent gun-related research and study, as well as the use of information found in government files, by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and other federal agencies and entities:
• 1979 – a ban on centralizing firearm sales records of federally licensed gun dealers
• 1994 – a ban on transfer of functions, missions or activities of ATF to another agency or department
• 1996 – a prohibition on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to advocate or promote gun control
• 1996 – a prohibition on placing records from federally funded gun dealers that go out of business in an electronic, searchable database.
• 1996 – a prohibition on redefining “curio or relic” gun, and prohibiting a curio or relic from being removed from the ATF list
• 2004 – a requirement that records from approved instant background checks must be destroyed within 24 hours
• 2004 – a prohibition on gun trace data being subject to subpoena for any state license revocation, civil lawsuit, or other proceeding unless filed by ATF
• 2004 – a ban on requiring federally licensed gun dealers to keep a physical inventory
• 2004 – a ban on allowing ATF to deny an application or renewal for a federally licensed gun dealer due to lack of activity
• 2005 – a ban on allowing ATF to deny an application for a permit to import “curio or relic” firearms
• 2005 – a prohibition on the admission of gun trace data in evidence
• 2005 – a ban on the need for an export license to export certain firearms parts or accessories to Canada
• 2011 – a denial of the right of the National Institutes of Health to advocate or promote gun control
What the NRA has to fear from public policy research or access to government information is beyond my imagination. But fear is the primary currency they use to buy the support of our politicians for their views and frighten gun owners.
Research is intended to discover something new, inform citizens and lawmakers, and then use the new knowledge to promote the betterment of us all. But these goals do not serve the interests of the NRA’s primary beneficiary – the gun manufacturers and related industries, which have given almost $15 million to the NRA since 2005. The NRA spent over $231 million in 2011 on its various activities (including lobbying), and contributes millions to political campaigns every election cycle. Its 4.5 million members, by virtue of their money and organization, dominate the other 310 million people who live in the US to the point that only the NRA’s fears matter.
It is fair to say that the NRA leadership is ruled by people who are selected in a far from democratic process. A person has to be a member of the NRA for five years before becoming eligible to vote on any NRA governance matter or policy. A secretive nine-member board controls who can be nominated for positions of leadership. Only about seven per cent of NRA members participate in its elections, an indication that voting is an exercise in futility because of the tight controls on who gets nominated. Leadership is pretty much a closed shop, where outsiders are unwelcome. But most gun owners and NRA members, unlike the NRA leadership, have no quarrel with the common sense policies that most Americans support.
The second and third questions posed above are linked, at least in the fearful mind of the NRA’s Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre. In February, he said that background checks seem reasonable, but what they are really about is registering guns, and that concept is anathema. LaPierre believes that names and addresses of gun owners cannot be kept secret and would be published for people everywhere to see. This happened to gun permit holders in two New York counties last December. LaPierre sees this as something approaching Armageddon. He imagines that gun owners would then be targeted by criminal elements intent on stealing the guns from law-abiding citizens, or by foreign governments intent on taking us over.
I find it difficult to imagine this as a reasonable fear because we have had car registration, for instance, almost as long as we have had cars. Cars usually are stolen while they are somewhere out in public, often because they are left unlocked or with the keys in them, not because they are registered. And we register constantly for gym memberships, Facebook, medical services, and a host of other activities with no thought of fear of harm.
Our houses are listed on public records that give their approximate value, but so far as we know, those public records have not led criminals to choose to break into them because of their value. Criminals rarely pick houses based on that criterion. They tend to pick houses to burglarize based on how easy it will be to enter them and get away with a burglary. Far more houses are burglarized during publicly-announced events like funerals and weddings than they are because they are on the tax roles for all to see.
And the government has done a good job preventing access to the home addresses of police officers, for instance, so they and their families will not be harmed by a criminal seeking retribution. It seems reasonable that gun registration data bases could be secured as well. But LaPierre fears that those data bases could easily be hacked and published for all to see.
In contrast to LaPierre’s fear-based views, a 2012 poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 82% of gun owners, 74% of whom either were or had been NRA members, favored background checks for purchasers of guns. A New England Journal of Medicine poll conducted this past January had almost identical results except that the figure for gun owners favoring background checks was 84%.
Another January poll by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of gun owners were in favor of making all gun sales, including those sold privately and at gun shows, subject to background checks – what is usually termed “universal background checks.” A CBS/New York Times poll, also in January, found that 85% of those polled who live in a household with an NRA member supported the kind of universal background checks LaPierre finds abhorrent.
Among Americans in general, the Pew poll found 85% in favor of universal background checks, whether the person was Republican, Democrat, or Independent. A CBS/New York Times poll found that that 92% favored universal background checks. Even a Fox News poll conducted in January found that 91% of respondents favored universal background checks.
What LaPierre really fears, based on an interview he gave to Fox news, is that universal background checks, along with registration, would lead to the confiscation of guns by the government. While this could be true for certain types of weapons – such as assault rifles or large gun clips – general confiscation of guns would violate the Constitution, something that LaPierre knows well.
LaPierre seems to believe that since we have the Second Amendment in the Constitution giving the people the right to own guns, this should trump the ability of the Congress to require that those constitutionally-approved guns be registered. This is a strange notion, considering that various other constitutional amendments also provide for the right to vote, but people are required in all jurisdictions to register to exercise that right. Gun registration seems to be well within the parameters of Constitutional governance if only we had a Congress in tune with the will of the people. But we do not.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.Email | Print