Washington is on edge over gun violence and possible new gun laws, which means there will be a lot of talk over the next few months about the business of selling and owning firearms, violent images in the media, the influence of the National Rifle Association, gun culture, hunting ducks--you name it.
In the swarm of verbiage that has already graced the newsprint and airwaves, a few concrete ideas have emerged about regulating guns: expanding background checks, banning assault weapons, and limiting high-capacity magazines.
Polling indicates that there is at least a slim majority of public support for each of those ideas. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month, the public is tilting toward tighter gun laws. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll conducted last week showed 51 percent of respondents favor controlling gun ownership over protecting the rights of Americans to own guns. That’s up from 47 percent in July, days after the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and up from 45 percent last April.
Every lawmaker has a disclaimer when it comes to proposals like this—the devil is in the details. Here are four sticky issues that could bedevil Congress and the Obama administration as they delve into an effort to craft legislation:
“The List.” Almost everyone is in favor of background checks, with polls showing anywhere from 85 percent to 95 percent of respondents saying would-be gun purchasers should undergo a background check before they can walk out of a store packing heat. But a check against what? Did the person commit a crime? Or is the seller checking to find out whether the buyer at one point sought medical treatment for substance abuse or has been accused of stalking by a former (perhaps crazy) spouse? Who gets included on “the list” of people who can’t own a gun?
Checking a potential buyer for a past crime is a no-brainer. An oft-cited poll from of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, conducted on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, says that 74 percent of NRA members favor “criminal background checks.” A CNN/Opinion Research Council poll in December found that 95 percent of the public favored “a background check on anyone attempting to purchase a gun in order to determine whether the prospective buyer has been convicted of a felony.” Of course they agree. It’s easy when you put it that way.
It’s also easy to agree with the notion that people with mental illnesses shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, as 80 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center last week. But how do you identify them? Privacy and civil-rights questions pop up when lawmakers start discussing a national list of people who shouldn’t own a firearm. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently upheld a lower court’s decision barring a man permanently from buying a gun because he was fined $100 in 1968 for a misdemeanor assault in a street-gang scuffle. The man did no time for the incident, but because the state law didn't impose a time frame for the charge, he is on the list.
Defining Mental Illness. FBI guidelines on mental illness have yet to be updated and still refer to an “adjudicated mental defective” as a person who should be denied a gun purchase. The definitions of mental “defectiveness” are relatively narrow—involuntary commitment to a mental institution or being found not guilty in a criminal case by reason of insanity. That leaves out an array of people who probably shouldn’t be sold a gun—suicide risks, for instance.
Lawmakers already are concerned that a shoring up the national database of people currently barred from owning a gun because of mental illness might run afoul of health care privacy laws. And that’s with a narrow standard of involuntary commitment or being labeled by a judge as insane or incompetent to stand trial.
Lawmakers who are less friendly to the idea of new gun restrictions are asking why the current laws aren’t first being fleshed out. “Before we look for political answer, let’s find legal answers,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who pointed out that the federal government does not prosecute most of the people who try to buy a gun and are turned away after a background check. Moreover, he said, the government hasn’t used the few mechanisms it already has for easily finding out who is mentally incapable of owning a gun.
Defining the “Bad Guns.” President Obama will include an assault-weapons ban on his list of To Do’s for the Congress and the administration on guns. Gun owners like to point out that it’s not entirely clear what an assault weapon is, other than that it looks scary.
“Good guns and bad guns. That’s the problem with how we focus the issue. The appropriate question is, ‘In whose hands are the guns?’ ” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
Even the most committed of gun-control advocates will admit that handguns are a far more prevalent problem in the United States than the semiautomatic firearms that are generally thought of as assault weapons. Yet banning handguns is out of the question, especially after the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision unequivocally stating an individual’s right to own a firearm.
That leaves Obama and Democrats stuck with pushing for an assault-weapons ban, even though the last ban (from 1994 to 2004) grandfathered in existing assault rifles and allowed manufacturers to change a few specs on their new rifles to dodge the standards. It hardly seemed worth the effort.
It will also be tricky to determine just how many automatic bullets should be allowed in a rapid-fire magazine clip. Three? Ten? Twenty? Democrats in favor of restricting high-capacity magazines say that three bullets is enough to kill a duck or a quail. Fair enough, but gun enthusiasts say that 10 or 20 rounds makes more sense for people who possess firearms for self-defense purposes. How do negotiators strike a deal on that one?
(Feldman also is quick to point out that one can easily double the available rounds by simply owning two guns.)
Who’s Gonna Pay? Any efforts to shore up safety in schools or take care of people who have mental disabilities or simply prosecute more unlawful gun buyers will cost money. And money is in short supply these days at both the federal and state levels.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pointed out in an op-ed on Tuesday that even the most commonsense ideas for curbing gun violence cost money. If you want to see a huge drain on a state or local treasury, try increasing the federal prosecutions for gun crimes, rather than using more lenient state laws, and incarcerating more of those those found guilty for longer. When Kaine was Virginia’s governor, that’s exactly what he did, as well as paying for strengthened standards on mental-health treatment and an expansion of community services.
Even the NRA's proposal to put armed guards in schools would cost money. NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre suggested that such funding could come from local communities and volunteers. However, it isn’t at all clear that the communities that need the assistance the most would have the resources or the volunteers to put such a squadron together. In the tight budget setting of Capitol Hill, any costs associated with gun-related changes will have to come from somewhere else, and the chances are good that the guardians of that “somewhere else” will protest.