In the wake of the Newtown massacre, President Obama has finally signalled a willingness to do something about gun violence - the only question is, "What?" Immediately after that, of course, comes the question of "how", given the depth of Republican hatred for him and everything he touches. If he's smart, however, there is a way to neatly answer both these questions at once, and that would be to limit his proposed set of actions to those supported by a majority of gun-owners themselves. This would position him to be as open to responsible conservative thinking as he always wants to be, while cutting out both the congressional Republican leadership and the NRA, which are only interested in making trouble for him.
Naturally, the place to start would be with a set of proposals that have already been shown to have majority support from the gun-owning public. They could then be complemented by additional proposals that haven't been polled, but could be before Obama makes his announcement. Those that gain majority gun-owner support could then be added to the list.
There is no reason in principle why a majority of gun-owners, rather than a majority of citizens, should have the last say, but there's an excellent pragmatic reason why they should have the first say: let gun-owners themselves decide what sort of legal regime they would be comfortable with, and let's all see what the results are. If - as most sane folks predict - the sky doesn't fall, and gun deaths drop, then maybe there will be a consensus to do more.
I say this as someone who would like even tougher laws than we're likely to get this way, but I'm willing to compromise, particularly to allay rational fears, meaning fears that can be allayed through a reality-based good-faith political process. It's time to get serious about sidelining the crazies, because until we do, it's their world we are living in - with all the senseless violence that entails.
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Majority gun-owner support
To understand what this would mean in practice, there are three sets of items we need to consider. First and foremost is the substantial list of gun safety measures that have already been shown to have majority support from gun-owners in the past. The best single source for this is a January 2011 poll sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in the wake of the mass shooting in which Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was nearly killed.
The second set of items are those which fell just short of such support at the time, but which very likely do enjoy majority support today, particularly in light of the Newtown massacre, with the addition of one other item that wasn't included in that poll - an assault weapons ban. Interestingly, there have been numerous polls showing majority gun-owner support for reinstating or even strengthening this ban, which was in place for 10 years.
The third set of items are those that haven't been polled, but which seem likely to have majority gun-owner support. These include a number of administrative and procedural fights that the NRA has won in recent years that are clearly quite important to the gun manufacturers that are the NRA's real beneficiaries, but that directly contradict the spirit of the NRA's claim that "we already have enough gun laws on the books, all we need to do is enforce them".
My suggestion with regard to the second two sets of items is that they should be polled as well, and that every item in those sets that now gets majority gun-owner support should be included in the bill.
So, with that roadmap in mind, let's set out to see what it encompasses, point by point. Let's begin with eight measures that enjoy high super-majority support from gun-owners - three with over 90 percent support and five more with over 80 percent support.
The three measures with over 90 percent support are:
1. Requiring gun owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen (94 percent support among all adults and gun-owners).
2. Fixing the gaps in government databases that are meant to prevent the mentally ill, drug abusers and others from buying guns (90 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
3. Requiring federal agencies to share information about suspected dangerous persons or terrorists, in order to prevent them from buying guns (91 percent among all adults and 93 percent among gun-owners).
The five measures with over 80 percent support among gun-owners are:
1. Fully funding the enforcement of the law Congress passed after the Virginia Tech massacre to prevent people with a history of mental illness from buying guns (89 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
2. Require all gun-buyers at gun shows to pass a criminal background check (89 percent among all adults and 85 percent among gun-owners).
3. Prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns (88 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
4. Fully enforce gun laws currently on the books (83 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
5. Tracking bulk purchases of assault rifles, which have become the weapon of choice of Mexican drug cartels (81 percent among all adults and 80 percent among gun-owners).
All the above enjoy overwhelming support for gun-owners. There is no sane reason that all of them could not be made law in less than a week. But there are another four measures which "only" enjoy super-majority support from gun-owners, in the 60-70 percent range. In any other issue, such levels of support would be considered an unbelievable level of consensus. These four measures are:
1. Notify state and local police when someone fails a background check for a gun (79 percent among all adults and 77 percent among gun-owners).
2. Fill the four-year vacancy for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency that is primarily responsible for enforcing our nation's gun laws (74 percent among all adults and 72 percent among gun owners).
3. Ban anyone arrested for a drug charge or who fails a federally-administered drug test from buying guns for five years (79 percent among all adults and 77 percent among gun-owners).
4. Prohibit anyone other than law enforcement from knowingly carrying a gun within 1,000 feet of the President, Members of Congress or federal judges (67 percent among all adults and 60 percent among gun-owners).
(The last item reflects on the attempted assassination of Gifford.)
Clamp down on illegal trafficking
One thing that's well worth noting in the figures above is how little difference there is between the views of gun-owners and that of the general public. There is nothing here to support the media narrative of a polarised electorate or the paranoid narrative of the NRA, portraying vast hordes of liberals whose thinking is totally alien to that good, red-blooded gun-owners. Nor, of course, is there anything in these figures to support the NRA's narrative that it represents the views of American gun-owners.
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versus gun control debate
Further buttressing these observations are the shared attitudes toward another item at the other end of the scale - something that's overwhelmingly rejected, an item that embodies the fears of NRA members. "Ban the sale of all handguns", was opposed by gun-owners 90-9 percent, but also by the general public, 80-19 percent. That vast horde of gun-grabbers that so terrifies the NRA... simply doesn't exist.
There are some differences between gun-owners' views and that of all Americans in general, but they only begin to show up as we move into the next echelon of bare majority and plurality support - which is also where we start to find measures that fall into our second category. There were three such items in the MAIG-sponsored poll:
1. Require all people buying ammunition to pass a criminal background check (69 percent among all adults, 56 percent among gun owners).
2. Ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines (58 percent among all adults and 49 percent among gun-owners - with 45 percent opposed).
3. Prohibit anyone convicted of a misdemeanour sex crime from purchasing guns (57 percent among all adults and 53 percent among gun-owners).
And a fourth item in a CBS/New York Times poll conducted that same month:
4. Ban the sale of assault weapons (63 percent among all adults and 54 percent among gun-owners).
There have been a number of other polls over the years that also show majority gun-owner support for banning assault weapons, many of them around the 2004 election, around the time that the original assault weapon ban expired. For example, the National Annenberg Election Survey in April 2004 found 71 percent support among all adults, 64 percent among gun-owning households. Another such poll, released shortly after the 2008 election, provided a helpful panel of questions about support for various measures among gun owners and the general public. For the sake of comparison, here are the results for all of them:
- Criminal background checks for all gun sales (83 percent all adults and 84 percent gun-owners).
- Registration and licensing of gun owners (68 percent all adults and 60 percent gun-owners).
- Banning military-style assault weapons (65 percent all adults and 60 percent gun-owners).
- Waiting period of five days for handgun sales (65 percent all adults and 64 percent gun-owners).
- Limiting the number of guns that can be bought at one time (54 percent all adults and 42 percent gun-owners).
- None of the above (4 percent all adults and 5 percent gun-owners).
Thus, we see 60 percent support or more, from gun-owners and the general public alike, for all four of the first measures, a split decision on the fifth measure, and overwhelming opposition to doing nothing - the position of the NRA, which has also been the position of the Obama administration up until the Newtown massacre.
I should point out that I support a limit on the number of guns that can be bought at one time. A primary reason for this is that multiple purchases are typically not for individual use, but for black market trafficking, which disproportionately leads to gun-related criminal activity. However, I'm quite willing to leave this provision out, in accordance with my guiding idea of passing proposals that gun owners as a whole support. There are plenty of other proposals that they do support which can help clamp down on illegal trafficking - and help give us a much more accurate picture of what is going on.
If this initial package of proposals were passed into law, four or five years down the line, we should be in a much better position to know the true impacts of allowing unlimited multiple sales, gun-owners should have a positive experience of common sense gun laws they're comfortable with, and we can take this matter up again at that time, if their judgment has changed. On the other hand, if better data shows that such unlimited sales really don't contribute to gun crimes, then I would gladly stop pursuing it as a goal.
NRA claims on gun safety
But this leaves us with one last category of measures which I think most gun-owners would support, but which they haven't been polled on. This category has to do with NRA efforts to protect gun manufacturers by trampling on other basic American rights and democratic freedoms.
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A recent Bloomberg News editorial sets the scene for one aspect of this:
If only the NRA believed in the right to free speech as fervently as it believes in the right to bear arms.
Faced with government-funded research that contradicts NRA claims on gun safety, the gun lobby moved to defund the research and silence the researchers. When news reporters tried to learn which gun shops repeatedly supply violent criminals with firearms, the NRA lobbied to have gun-trace data exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. When advocates of transparency in campaign finance proposed the Disclose Act in Congress to require disclosure of top donors to political advertising campaigns, the NRA once again marched to the beat of its own 100-round drum: The organisation obtained an exemption to keep its information secret.
The list goes on. The NRA-backed Tiahrt Amendment requires the Justice Department to destroy records after gun-purchase background checks, making it harder to identify and catch straw buyers who work for criminals. As part of its war on information, the gun lobby has blocked efforts to put sales records into an integrated database, making the data more difficult for law enforcement officers to retrieve and organise, and complicating efforts to analyse gun trafficking patterns.
Rather than try to address each of these barriers to the free flow of information separately, I'm going to phrase this in terms of a unified whole:
1. Should we treat information related to guns like any other information, as a valuable tool that can help us make better-informed decisions, which can save lives? This means removing all special prohibitions - above and beyond standard privacy protections, for example. This includes, but is not limited to those that impeded government research into causes and prevention of gun violations, those that exempt gun-trace data from the Freedom of Information Act, and the Tiahrt Amendment, which requires the Justice Department to destroy after-purchase background checks, making them unavailable for law enforcement dealing with subsequent gun crimes.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the NRA has also managed to get guns specially exempted from most civil lawsuits, as recently described by Media Matters for America:
In 2005, former President George W Bush signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act - the "No. 1 legislative priority of the National Rifle Association" - which immunized gun makers and dealers from civil lawsuits for the crimes committed with the products they sell, a significant barrier to a comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy....
Faced with an increasing number of successful lawsuits over reckless business practices that funnelled guns into the hands of criminals, the 2005 immunity law was a victory for the NRA, which "lobbied lawmakers intensely" to shield gun makers and dealers from personal injury law. As described by Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading constitutional scholar and the Dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law, by eliminating this route for victims to hold the gun industry accountable in court, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a complete deviation from basic "principles of products liability"….
As leaders of Congress state that "every idea should be on the table" in attempting to prevent another tragedy like the Newtown massacre, major news outlets should investigate why the gun industry remains shielded by law from the consequences of its irresponsible business practices in a way that other industries are not.
So, the second question gun-owners should be:
2. Should we treat gun manufacturers like any other industry, repealing the 2005 law which specially exempts gun-makers from basic principles of product liability in civil lawsuits that apply to all other businesses?
As Media Matters also notes, the media has done a terrible job of covering the product liability exemption - and the same can be said about the NRA's stifling of gun information as well. But I think it's quite likely that once gun-owners know what's going on in these areas, a solid majority will support treating gun manufacturers just like any other business.
I believe that a majority of them will recognise where their interests and the gun-makers' interests coincide - and where they do not. Let's ask them and see if I'm right. If I am, these two proposals would help round out a Gun-Owners Gun Safety Act that truly could start to change the trajectory of gun violence in America, and help bring us into line with other civilised nations.
I know, I know, it's a crazy idea: ignore the Beltway voices that have perpetuated gridlock, dysfunction and mayhem all these many years, and listen to the people instead. But you know what? It just might be crazy enough to work.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.