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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three hundred million - that's the estimated number of guns owned by Americans today. No other country in the world even gets close to that level of gun ownership. But it's also the source of deep controversy in the United States, and in the wake of tragedies in Tucson, Aurora and Oak Creek, groups on both sides of this issue seem to have dug in. There's a new book that tries to break this stalemate. In "Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment," Craig Whitney argues that despite the sometimes extreme points of view on our country's gun policies, there is room for compromise. Whitney, a former editor at The New York Times, says he grew frustrated watching the reaction to mass shootings.

CRAIG WHITNEY: People are horrified and there are expressions of dismay. And then nothing happens and we have another one. And what you need is to keep the conversation going. What should we do to make these things less likely? Is there anything we can do? If there is, we ought to talk about it.

MARTIN: The subtitle of your book is "A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment." And the subtitle implies that this is somehow unusual that a liberal would make this case?

WHITNEY: What I wanted to do was suggest that especially liberals, who are generally in favor of gun control, should say, now, look, we agree that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, and it's protected by the Second Amendment. Now, let's talk about ways to make it safer to have all these guns. That must be as much in the interests of gun owners as it is in the interests of people who fear gun violence.

MARTIN: What has been the evolution of the NRA? I mean, it has played such a singular role in defining or helping to shape our country's gun policy.

WHITNEY: I had fun quoting Charlton Heston back in the 1960s, just after Martin Luther King was assassinated with a rifle. And I quote him from then, "Our gun control laws are so lax that anyone can buy a weapon - the mentally ill, the criminal, the boy too young to bear the responsibility of owning a deadly weapon." Now, that changed after the 1968 Gun Control Act was passed. And the leadership of the NRA that had endorsed some of the measures was overthrown, and Charlton Heston later, of course, became spokesman for, you know, from my cold, dead hands.

CHARLTON HESTON: I have only five words for you: from my cold, dead hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE & CHEERING)

MARTIN: Do you see similar inflammatory rhetoric on the left when it comes to this issue?

WHITNEY: Well, I think the left gives the NRA the opportunity to spread paranoia and fear about what the Democrats in particular would like to do about guns by every time there's a gun massacre, saying what we've got to have is tighter gun control. The NRA looks at responses like that to gun violence and says, see? This is what we're up against.

MARTIN: So, where is the common ground?

WHITNEY: One of the common grounds is let's enforce to the limit the laws that are on the books. For instance, increase the penalties for people who buy guns for criminals and others who are not going to pass the National Instant Check System. I don't think the NRA would disagree with that.

MARTIN: What do you think is the solution in the near term? Is there one piece of legislation you think could go a long ways into correcting these holes you've identified in our gun policy?

WHITNEY: I don't think at the moment that the ground has been prepared for that. What you going to have, and what I hope my book would stimulate, is a reasonable discussion about how you could devise legislation that would make it safer for all of us and not question the constitutional right of law-abiding people to have guns. Both the Republicans and the Democrats could do this if they wanted to. President Obama and Mitt Romney actually did come close to having a little common ground in their last debate, and they both agreed that it isn't just gun control. You have to affect the behavior of the people who turn to guns in troubled neighborhoods. It's essential. You're never going to solve the gun violence problem with gun control alone.

MARTIN: Craig Whitney is the author of a new book called "Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment." Mr. Whitney, thanks so much for talking with us.

WHITNEY: Thank you for having me.

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