Week In Politics: When Guns And Politics Intersect

Robert Siegel speaks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss Friday's shooting in Aurora, Colo., as well as the week's developments in the race for the White House.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel, and we're joined now by our Friday political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. It's good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to speak with you.

SIEGEL: Let's start with this horrible news, the terrible shooting in Aurora, Colorado. E.J., you've already written today about this, about mass shootings, guns and politics. And when something like this happens, you write, and I'm quoting now, "our whole public reasoning process goes haywire." What do you mean?

DIONNE: What I mean by that is that the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby have such a firm hold on our political system that no one can bring up the notion, which we bring up with every other kind of tragedy, that maybe we can do better. Maybe there are laws we could pass that would prevent something like this.

No one pretends that better laws would prevent all tragedies, but if that were the standard, then we wouldn't pass any laws at all. We have the most permissive gun laws pretty much in the industrialized world. And I hope, but I have no confidence, that we won't make the same mistake again.

I'd like to think that one time, we could say: Oh, let's open this up. Let's talk about the assault weapons ban. Let's talk about ways in which we might reduce the chances that someone with mental problems might get a gun. And I'm just worried that we're going to revert right back to our usual sort of giving and saying, well, the gun lobby controls Washington, so we can never do anything about things like this.

SIEGEL: David, what do you think of that?

BROOKS: Well, I'm no fan of the NRA, I'm not really an opponent of gun control or an assault weapon ban, but, you know, public policy is based on evidence and data and whether it would work. This is one of the most studied things in criminology. And the weight of the evidence is pretty clear that there's no relationship between gun control and violent crime.

Areas with higher gun control do not have less violent crime. Over the last few years, the number of new guns entering the country has been about four million a year. At the same time, violent crime has plummeted by about 41 percent a year.

So I'm not necessarily opposed to the policy, I don't really think it would matter in violent crime generally, and I really don't think it would matter too much in the case of lunatics or whatever who are committed to this sort of pre-planned massacre.

DIONNE: If we had better background checks, yes we'll miss some lunatics, but with real background checks, we could reduce the number of lunatics who get guns. And there's also a spillover. If you have permissive laws in one state - as Mayor Bloomberg has shown, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who has proposed a lot of very practical remedies, not sweeping remedies but practical remedies - he's shown how loose laws in one state can send guns into a state that may have stricter laws.

So I don't think we should throw up our hands and say it's impossible...

BROOKS: Yeah, one area of agreement, I do think people who have history of mental health issues, and this came up with the Loughner case, that...

SIEGEL: The shooting of Gabby Giffords...

BROOKS: That should show up when you're trying to buy a gun. And legally, that's supposed to happen, but it doesn't always happen.

SIEGEL: We don't know all that much about the suspect. So far no indication that any such record would have shown up. We just don't know yet.

DIONNE: Right, and my argument is not that you can prevent every one of these things, but when I heard this this morning, like everybody else, I was, you know, sick about it. And I just thought that every time this happens, people say, well, there are very particular factors in this case, so let's not talk about gun control, gun control wouldn't solve it.

Well, maybe it would, or maybe it wouldn't in a particular case, but it would prevent some of these things in the future.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the presidential race. And let's start with something that President Obama said in a speech last weekend, which occupied - well, it kept the pundits and columnists busy all week. He said that he was struck - he said this in a speech - by people who think they succeeded because they are so smart or because they worked so hard. He said lots of people work hard. We succeed, he said, because of individual initiative but also because we do things together.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, that - you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.

SIEGEL: Mitt Romney seized on that, especially that last remark, as an affront to entrepreneurs. David, let's start with you. Did President Obama run the risk there of sounding like he doesn't understand initiative and the private sector?

BROOKS: I've read that thing over a dozen times. I can't figure out what he meant. I think some things are obvious. Everyone had teachers; everyone's had helpers. Everyone does well because of infrastructure and roads and schools. But he did tap into a debate, which is actually a real debate.

When you ask people around the world, are you individually responsible for your destiny, or is it like other things like social factors and luck, there is a big degree of difference in how people answer that question. Americans in general are much more likely to think individuals control their destinies, and Republicans are more likely than Democrats to think individuals control their destinies.

And so that did tap into a genuine partisan difference, and a lot of Republicans said he's ignoring the fact of individual initiative. I'm not quite sure he was doing that. The correct answer, of course, is that we're all the beneficiaries of social forces, but we should act as if individual initiative is all that matters.

SIEGEL: E.J., a real division here between different views of what the country's all about?

DIONNE: Actually, I think it's a false choice and a trumped-up issue. I think most of us understand that hard work matters but also that people who are successful were often lucky somewhere in the people who helped them out or in the parents they have - we don't choose our own parents.

And to say we're lucky to live in America isn't socialism, it's patriotism. And so I think that Romney was trying to use this one fragment of a longer quote because he's having trouble on the tax returns issue. So he wants to argue that Obama doesn't like success, and there's the issue about offshore - offshoring money, and so he wants Obama to be anti-capitalist.

I think this is anodyne, and it's funny because Romney later said, well, of course I believe government helps businesses thrive. So I think it's a phony debate because of one unclear sentence in, I think, a pretty clear quote.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what about this impression we're getting that Mitt Romney does need to do something because a lot of issues don't seem to be going his way in the past couple of weeks?

BROOKS: Well, I would point out that he's doing better in the polls.

SIEGEL: He is.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: So I'm not sure how much - I do think he does need to define himself, and this you hear among Republicans all the time. Who is this guy? He's a much better person, I believe, than he's letting on. And why hasn't he sought to describe who he is, describe what he's actually like? Why is the stiffness so permanent a part of his public persona?

DIONNE: I'm reminded of that great line: Wagner's music is better than it sounds. And Mitt Romney has to be better than he's looked in the last week with his handling of these particular issues. I still think it's astonishing he won't make public his taxes. It just raises the question: What's in there?

SIEGEL: But hasn't this become a meta-issue at this point, David, it's not what's in the taxes, it's how can he succumb to the demands to release his taxes without looking like he's succumbing to demands?

BROOKS: Yeah, he probably should have done it, though I'm not sure any of us learn anything from anybody's tax returns. The odd thing, electorally, about him is as his approval ratings go down, his electability goes up. So people don't like him, but they seem to want to vote for him.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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