Obama Administration Goes After Guns

Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are touting new proposals aimed at curbing gun violence. Host Michel Martin learns more from Paul Barrett, author of 'Glock: The Rise of America's Gun' and Craig Whitney, author of 'Living With Guns, A Liberal's Case for the 2nd Amendment.'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we are going to spend some time talking about the debate over guns, access to guns and gun safety in this country. In a few minutes, we will hear what lawmakers in New York state have done. They've recently passed a comprehensive set of new rules that they say will prevent another mass shooting like the one last month in Newtown, Connecticut.

But first, we want to take a look at the national picture. President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden laid out some recommendations today that they hope will curb gun violence in this country. Here is the president, speaking at the White House earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try it. And I'm going to do my part.

MARTIN: The president is calling for things like universal background checks and a ban on larger ammunition magazines. As this debate goes forward, we are going to speak once again with two journalists who have reported extensively on the gun industry, the politics around guns and the role guns have played in our culture.

Craig Whitney is the author of the book "Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment." He spent more than 40 years as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor at the New York Times. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Paul Barrett is the author of the book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He's an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. And he's actually with us from Las Vegas, where he is covering what is believed to be the largest gun show in the world, the Shooting/Hunting/Outdoor Trade - or SHOT - Show.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

CRAIG WHITNEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, you wrote a piece saying that the Obama administration and the gun industry actually could strike a deal. How?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, in making my rounds here at the SHOT Show, where you've got more than 50,000 people in attendance, most of them retail gun dealers, I've noticed that in asking people about the various proposals the president is expected to introduce, that there's powerful opposition to ideas like restrictions on so-called assault weapons, restrictions on large capacity magazines, but a very interesting kind of silence, looking at one's shoes and shuffling, when the topic of universal background checks comes up. The NRA may oppose that idea of filling the loopholes in our background check law, but the gun industry itself actually would have no serious problem with that.

And I think that if that idea - making sure that every single sale of a firearm goes through the background check system - became the centerpiece of this debate, you would find the gun industry itself largely silent and maybe even slightly supportive.

MARTIN: Well, Paul, stay with us for a minute. The president said it's his job - at a press conference earlier this week he said it's his job to propose what makes sense and then to worry about the politics later.

So two questions. Does that proposal make sense? And what would the politics of that be?

BARRETT: Well, I think, you know, I think it makes sense to try to do some things that actually have a chance of passing, and I think it makes sense to focus on issues that can be distinguished from the radioactive Second Amendment issues that lead to inevitable and possibly never-ending political debate.

We already have a background check law. We already have a broad consensus there are certain categories of people who should not be able to acquire or possess firearms - felons, people who are mentally ill, minors, people who have protective orders out against them, and so forth.

In point of fact, the industry, the gun industry, people who make and sell guns, really do not have a serious - have any problem with universal background checks. And it just seems to me that if you want a starting place, a place where you can find a broad consensus, that that's the place to start.

MARTIN: Well, Paul, you write in your piece that gun sales by federally licensed firearms dealers are subject to instant point of sale background checks, and that is designed to prevent purchases by felons, the mentally ill, minors, people with protective orders against them, and a number of other categories of people who shouldn't possess guns.

But the law exempts sales by unlicensed quote-unquote private collectors, and the most common estimate is that some 40 percent of gun transactions actually take place without those kinds of background checks. But Craig Whitney, you know, turning to you, I think the thing that a lot of people in the public are concerned about are so-called assault weapons.

And I understand that that's a term that people who are most familiar with guns find ridiculous and confusing, but just for the sake of argument the assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and things of that sort. So talk to me, if you would, about does that make sense? And what are the politics of those kinds of proposals?

WHITNEY: Well, banning those altogether I don't think would ever get through Congress. Some more effective kind of restrictions or background checks on people who buy them might. But no gun control measure all by itself is going to stop things like the Newtown massacre, or street violence with handguns. You have to combine measures that deal with the hardware with the software - the human behavior that produces violent crime with guns.

MARTIN: What would that look like, Craig Whitney?

WHITNEY: Well, here in New York the law that has just been signed actually provides that mental health professionals who have patients they think are a danger to themselves or could be a danger to others can report their names to local authorities and eventually to law enforcement authorities who can then go check whether they have, these people have weapons, and seize them, take them away.

We all agree that mentally ill people shouldn't have access to weapons, and that's an interesting proposal. It may need some refinements. But another possible measure accompanying gun control would be improvements in the database of names of people - criminals, drug addicts, mentally ill people and so on - that make, try to make sure that they can't buy weapons from dealers.

And I agree with Paul, that closing that loophole would, well, Congress ought to be ashamed of itself if it doesn't close that loophole.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with journalists Craig Whitney and Paul Barrett, who have both written and reported extensively on guns, gun violence, gun safety, and the gun industry. We're talking in the wake of proposals that Vice President Joseph Biden has passed on to President Obama, addressing this issue.

Paul Barrett, what about handguns? I mean there's been a lot of discussion in the wake of that awful shooting, obviously, and a number of other mass shootings about high capacity ammunition, magazines, and so forth. But I think from the day to day existence that a lot of people have and the fear that a lot of people have, it's really about handguns. Are there any proposals that are being discussed about that?

BARRETT: You're absolutely right. And I think one of the ways the debate right now is somewhat distorted is we're focusing on weapons that are not used commonly in ordinary street crime. And I think that that's - that's a shame. I think it may well be that limiting magazine capacity has some marginal effects, but whether the limit is 20 round or 15 rounds is going to have no effect on street muggings, shootings between drug dealers, convenience store stickups, domestic violence killings, and the like.

And unfortunately it tends to be the way our debates about guns go. We tend to focus on a sensational episode that's in the news. The volume gets very high very quickly and we lose track of, you know, what might be the most effective steps forward. I mean the universal background check idea which we've been talking about would apply across the board to all kinds of weapons and I think would actually be plausibly a viable anti-crime step that could be combined with more effective policing of existing laws and could be sold to the American people in those terms without a lot of reference to the Second Amendment, without a lot of reference to the symbolism that seems to drive so many people, all across the political spectrum, a little batty on this subject.

MARTIN: Craig Whitney, a final thought from you. As both of you have pointed out - as a lot of people have pointed - this is such a divisive issue, it's become - it very quickly becomes, you know, a very heated issue.

A recent Gallup poll finds that more Americans support tougher gun laws now than they did a year ago - in the wake of recent events, one assumes - but 43 percent say they are still content with the current gun regulations, so where do you think this debate should go from here?

WHITNEY: Well, I think that (technical difficulties) trying to find common ground between gun owners and their advocates and people who advocate more gun control on how to make it safer for all of us. Everybody's interested in having all the guns that we have be as safe for the general population and for the people who own them as possible. But the NRA - Wayne LaPierre of the NRA has emailed me and everybody else who belongs to the NRA saying he's going to carry out the fight of the century against, I guess, everything that the president proposes. He talks about Obama's anti-gun bureaucrats and says that what they want to do is ban your guns. That's just going to pour gasoline on the fire that you're talking about, and we should be working to have a calm dialog with each other about, not this kind of hysteria.

MARTIN: Well, why don't other NRA members like yourself advance that point of view, I mean, that there are tens of millions of gun owners in this country and it's estimated that only four million belong to the NRA. Where are those other 56 million?

WHITNEY: Well, Gabrielle Giffords has actually formed a new group designed to try to attract that kind of people for whom the NRA doesn't speak. And I hope, you know, groups like that may gather force as we go ahead. They need to because, as you say, you know, not all gun owners belong to the NRA and not all NRA members think the organization speaks for them on this issue.

MARTIN: Craig Whitney is author of the book, "Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the 2nd Amendment." He joined us from New York. Paul Barrett is author of the book, "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He joined us from Las Vegas, where he is attending and reporting on what's believed to be the world's largest gun show there.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BARRETT: My pleasure.

WHITNEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Please stay with us. We are going to continue on the issue of guns and gun safety with a look at what New York State is doing. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a set of changes into law yesterday, making it the first state to change its laws after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. We'll find out more about what they did. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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