The National Rifle Association (NRA) claims it exists to protect our rights. My question is this: Who will protect us from the NRA?
The gun lobby is not responsible for the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., last week that has so far claimed 12 victims.
But its consistent and effective efforts to thwart common-sense laws to reduce gun deaths have turned the NRA into a public health threat. To the mayhem of Aurora, it adds its own brand of madness.
I’m not saying the NRA doesn’t have a right to do what it does. I’m not saying gun laws are a panacea that will stop spree killings or gun deaths — more on that below. I’m saying that by standing up to the NRA and passing a handful of sensible gun laws, we can prevent thousands of gun-related deaths each year.
I say this as a former NRA member. I still enjoy shooting guns, and I probably know more about them than your average concealed-carry diehard. There are Red Staters who drive Leafs and Blue Staters who shoot skeet. We can have both guns and common sense in this country – right now we only have the former.
“Aurora was a tragedy,” Adam Winkler, author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” told me by phone when I called him just four days after the shooting. “But since Aurora, 240 people have died from guns in this country. Two hundred and forty.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns claim 35 victims each day in this country — a statistic that does not include suicides (as Winkler’s number did). About 86,000 people are either killed or wounded by firearms each year, of which 12,612 people die. That means that 10 days after Aurora, guns will have killed another 350 people.
The key to driving these numbers down, Winkler said, is to enact federal laws that address the most egregious flaws in gun legislation.
Winkler, like me, is not anti-gun. He’s a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, a Westside native (and yes, the son of legendary film producer Irwin Winkler) who has focused his considerable intellect on the Second Amendment, which has resulted in America’s patchwork of state laws regarding guns. Because of the inconsistencies across state lines, restrictions are bound to be ineffective, as guns are easy to conceal and transport.
I asked Winkler to name one or two federal laws that sensible people and courageous politicians could support.
He suggested new laws aimed at improving criminal background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns. New federal laws should also require these checks for all gun sales. Right now, they only apply to sales by licensed gun dealers, who only account for 60 percent of all gun sales. That means 40 percent of all gun sales—via private parties and gun shows, for example—take place with no background check.
That’s a good place to start, President Obama.
Even such a law, Winkler acknowledged, still might not prevent the next Aurora. Twisted men (it is almost always men) intent on killing will find a way to procure one of the 200 million guns in this country, as well as the millions of large-capacity ammunition magazines.
People who really want to wreak havoc will find a way. Norway has strict gun laws, yet still one of the worst mass shootings in history took place there a year ago this week. And in America, the problem of violence goes far beyond guns. Our homicide rate is four times that of France and the United Kingdom — the highest of any advanced democracy. Switzerland and Israel both have a high percentage of gun ownership but low or negligible amounts of gun-related homicide.
The causes of such carnage may be spiritual, sociological, economic, historical or all of the above.
But smart, universal background checks could save two or three or five lives each week.
“You could say you’re just addressing the margins,” Winkler said, “but those margins are human lives.”
To save those lives, people have to funnel their outrage over Aurora into two things: contributions and votes.
“Gun control supporters don’t do that,” Winkler pointed out. “Gun control opponents do that.”
He’s right. The NRA, whose founding vision has been hijacked by people with a maximalist agenda, is flourishing. Meanwhile, gun control advocacy organizations flounder. Last May, the Los Angeles-based Women Against Gun Violence held a fundraiser honoring New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, and the event brought in much less money than expected. Foundation grants have also slacked off, the group’s executive director, Margot Bennett, told me. The economy may be partly to blame, but so are politicians from across the spectrum who lack the courage to confront the NRA, and people like you and me who have given up the fight.
The annual budget of Women Against Gun Violence is $300,000. The NRA’s annual budget? $220 million.
“Mayor Bloomberg said we need more leadership on this issue,” Winkler told me. “But he’s got it exactly backwards. We don’t need more leadership, we need more followership.”
This is a fight between those willing to sacrifice American lives for a maximalist political agenda, and those who want to find the right balance between our constitutional rights and the sanctity of human life.
To all those in favor of balance: It’s time to step up.