Gun Control: What Would Mayors Do?

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., mayors are a key part of the debate over the country's gun laws. Host Michel Martin speaks with two leaders who frequently encounter issues of gun violence and gun ownership; Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Sylvester James and former Cincinnati Mayor Kenneth Blackwell.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, people are heading home for the holidays, and guess who's coming to dinner? More and more these days, the guests at the holiday table really do resemble that American melting pot. So what should you do when Grandpa trots out his favorite Polish joke, among others? We talk about etiquette for these ethnically diverse times, in just a few minutes.

But first, to a more serious topic. It's been a week since that mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. As we've been talking about on this program, the terrible event is again provoking debate about how to balance this country's traditionally expansive view of gun rights, with the rights of citizens to be safe. The National Rifle Association held its first press conference since the shooting, today. Here's the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. He lashed out at the media on a number of grounds, and he also said that schools should have armed guards. He said the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF NRA PRESS CONFERENCE)

WAYNE LAPIERRE: Why is the idea of a gun good when it's used to protect the president of our country, or our police, but bad when it's used to protect our children in our schools?

MARTIN: It was actually a very heated press conference; it was interrupted twice, by protesters. But it occurred to us that the debate isn't just inflaming passions at the national level. Often, the first people called upon to respond, when terrible situations occur, are the mayors of cities and towns. Some of these leaders, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have been among the most vocal on these issues. So we decided to reach out to a number of current and former mayors, for perspective.

We have two with us today. Sylvester James Jr. - known as Sly James - is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. He's a Democrat. He is a member of the coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Also with us is Kenneth Blackwell. He is a Republican. He is the former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio. He also served as Ohio's secretary of state, and ran unsuccessfully for governor; where among his credentials, his party cited - was his top rating from the National Rifle Association's political action arm. Welcome to all of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR SYLVESTER: Good to be with you.

KENNETH BLACKWELL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mayor James, I'd like to start with you because - as I said - often when, you know, these terrible situations occur involving gun violence, the mayors are the people who are called upon to comfort, you know, the mother whose child has been hit by a stray bullet. But they are also answerable to citizens who feel that if the government can't protect them, it's their responsibility to protect themselves. So I wanted to ask you, you know, first, how are you thinking about this issue, right now? And are there specific proposals that you have, that you want to put forward?

JAMES: Absolutely. And I'm sure that Mr. Blackwell would agree that as mayors, we're charged - first and foremost - with keeping our community safe. But too many of us sat - and have sat with mothers and fathers of children who've been killed in gun violence. Just in the last few days, there was a 4-year-old strapped into a carseat here, in Kansas City, who was shot and has been clinging to life. There are numerous instances of bullets shattering glass and walls from drive-by shootings; and killing or hurting, or severely wounding, young children.

And we - I am a member of Mayors - coalition - Against Illegal Guns. And the "illegal" needs to be stressed because no one is suggesting that law-abiding citizens who are well-trained and well-meaning, or simply want to engage in sport or hunting, should be banned from having any weapons. That is not the case. We are talking about taking illegal guns out of the hands of people who use them for illegal reasons...

MARTIN: And how, exactly...

JAMES: ...reasons that kill.

MARTIN: How do you want to take - how, exactly, are you planning to take guns out of people's hands? Exactly - give me - we are going to turn to Mr. Blackwell, but just give me one or two ideas that you have, that you want to put forward.

JAMES: One very easy thing would be to require every single buyer of a weapon to go through a criminal-background check. The background checks are easy. They are almost instantaneous. The NICS has blocked firearms purchases from licensed dealerships, where individuals should not have had them because they are felons or mentally infirm. But purchasers and sellers have gotten around that by going to gun shows or other forms of illegal buying, where background checks have not been made. And these weapons - high-magazine number, assault-type weapons - the weapons designed to kill people, wind up in people's hands. And they shouldn't be there. Again, this isn't about the person engaging in sport or hunting. This is about people who buy weapons designed for killing people - and use them for that simple purpose.

MARTIN: Mr. Blackwell, what about you? When you were mayor, how did you think about this issue, balancing - as we've said - the rights of gun owners with the demand that citizens have, to be safe? Also wanting to point out that your - you know, while you were mayor, your wife was a superintendent of schools.

BLACKWELL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So obviously, I think the safety of schoolchildren was probably very much on your mind as well. So tell me about your philosophy on this.

BLACKWELL: Absolutely. Look, mayors all across the country - has as their top priority, just as the mayor said, the safety of their citizens. We need to take a very comprehensive approach, not only to making sure that we keep dangerous people from acquiring firearms without - in a manner that doesn't include disarming law-abiding people from their ability to defend themselves; we need to take an even broader look at the coarsening of our culture.

You know, we have people, in the name of the First Amendment, in Hollywood that basically refuse to rethink its relationship to violence. We need to take a look at what the whole coarsening of the culture, from treating abortion as a form of birth control to the rapid breakup of our families as things that contribute to the atrocities that we have seen occur, all too frequently.

MARTIN: Is there anything, specifically, that you would urge mayors to be talking about right now? As you know - that there are a number of mayors, particularly in big cities, who feel that there are very specific things that need to be done about giving citizens access to large-capacity magazines, for example, and certain kinds of weapons. What about you - are there specific things that you want to do right now?

BLACKWELL: We need to all work from a common understanding of what the facts are. There are 90 million gun owners, 190 million guns; and already on the books, we have 20,000 federal, state, and local gun laws - on the books. We need to make sure that we put hard penalties on the use of guns to create crimes. We need to rethink how we deal with mental illness in this - in our country. And so I would engage the president, in his drive, to have the conversation about how we deal with the broader issue of the coarsening of our culture; and then more specifically, how we deal with things from Hollywood, to making sure that criminals don't have access to automatic weapons and the like.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are talking about strategies to address gun violence, from the perspective of two different big-city mayors. With us is Mayor Sly James Jr., of Kansas City, Missouri; Ken Blackwell - he's the former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Former Mayor Blackwell, it sounds to me as though you're saying you don't feel that any additional regulation is needed at all in regard to the size of - or the large-capacity magazines, or the types of weapons that are now available.

BLACKWELL: I think we need to take a look at some facts, Michel. For instance, within a five-mile radius of the, you know, mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, the theaters there - seven theaters. One theater didn't allow a conceal-carry permit; six did. Guess which one the perpetrator chose to commit his mass murder in? Where conceal carries was not allowed. He understood. He was smart enough to understand that there was nobody who could fight back there.

MARTIN: Do you know that that's why he chose that location? Do we know that?

BLACKWELL: Well, we don't know. It could have been by chance. But I will tell you this - what we have seen across the country is that gun violence has, in fact, gone down where conceal-carry laws have been in place.

MARTIN: Well, you know, gun violence has gone down all over the country, though, Mr. Mayor. I don't know. Mayor James, why don't you - do you want to speak on that, for a minute?

JAMES: Well, yeah. I do, as a matter of fact. You know, I don't want to engage in this broader conversation and lose point - and lose the point that we started this conversation about. We have a plethora of assault-type weapons on the streets of this city, and other cities across the country. We have Kevlar-piercing bullets. That's not for any purpose other than to pierce Kevlar. And it's not lost on me that one out of every five police officers who dies in the line of duty, in this country, dies at the end of an assault-type weapon. While we're talking about the coarsening of the society and trying to cure every ill, there are some common-sense things that we can do to stop, perhaps, the next person from dying.

Now, based on what I saw of that young man in Aurora, Colorado, it didn't look like he knew what day it was, let alone how many theaters have conceal-carry weapon - or, bans or allowances in them. But the fact of the matter is, he walked into one theater with assault-type weapons, and killed a number of people. Had checks been made; had he been required to go through mental health checks, and other things were made; maybe not him, but other people who have managed to acquire these types of weapons would have been stopped, and people's lives would not have been lost.

There is no panacea. Everything is interconnected. I will agree with Mr. Blackwell on that. But we know for a fact that assault-type weapons kill people. We know high magazines allow them to kill more people. And we can do something about that right now.

MARTIN: OK.

JAMES: We don't have to wait for 20 years while society changes.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Blackwell, I'm going to give you the last word. I gave Mayor James the first word. I'll give you the last word very briefly, if you would. Mayor Blackwell?

BLACKWELL: We need - we need to deal with the coarsening of our culture - everything from getting illegal weapons out of the hands of criminals, to making sure that fewer and fewer of our children are born out of wedlock and into broken families, where they suffer more and more from the emotional and mental disruptions in their lives that lead to these sort of mass murders.

MARTIN: You...

BLACKWELL: On that, we agree.

MARTIN: Well, we hear very different philosophies here. I thank you both so much for speaking with us. Kenneth Blackwell is the former mayor of Cincinnati. He is a Republican. He also served as Ohio's secretary of state, and was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of his state. He joined us from his office in Cincinnati. Sylvester James is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. He is a Democrat. He was kind enough to join us from member station KCUR in Kansas City. Mayors, both, I thank you both so much for speaking with us on this important topic.

BLACKWELL: Thank you.

JAMES: Thank you. Thank you.

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