Column: Patt Morrison asks: Lara Smith of the Liberal Gun Club

Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli/ Associated Press)

Don’t bother checking your calendar – it isn’t April 1, and there is such a thing as the Liberal Gun Club. The national organization is pro-gun ownership and pro-2nd Amendment, and attorney Lara Smith is the vice president of the California chapter, the club’s largest. She details where the group stands vis a vis the massively influential National Rifle Assn. and the country’s top-of-the-lungs arguments over gun rights and gun safety. If you search for the organization it online, you’ll find its name paired with the words “libertas, gravitas, civitas,” roughly “liberty, seriousness, citizenship.” It could just as well use whatever the Latin is for “less heat, more light.”


I read on your website that some people don’t think you really exist.


I think that’s a common misperception. There are approximately 33% of Democrats that admit to having guns in their houses and to being gun owners. The Liberal Gun Club seeks to have membership for them.

I think it’s really important to understand how diverse gun owners are in the United States. I think there is this perception that almost every gun owner is a white male approximately 50 years old. And that is just not true.

Women are the largest-growing segment of the gun population. There’s groups like the Pink Pistols, which is an LGBT gun rights organization. We are a huge, broad, different group of Americans. I think we probably represent every aspect of American society.

Only about 7[%] to 9% of gun owners are members of the NRA. If we even just had 1% of the remaining gun owners, we would be a huge powerful organization.

What is it about your group that your needs aren’t being met by these others?

One example today would be a tweet today from the NRA that says, Call your lawmakers and tell them to oppose any new gun control measure.” But when you click through on the link, they link that to their quote, Obama’s failed (supposedly failed) global war on terror. And that doesn’t resonate with Democrats.

Democrats feel excluded from the gun debate. We own our guns, we support the 2nd Amendment, we support all of the Constitution, but we’re not represented when it comes to the national debate and the national stage.

We do not agree with the statement of fight all gun control. Now, is there a consensus in our group on what control there should be? No, absolutely not, but there is a discussion and there are certain things like universal background checks, well-implemented checks, that are generally supported.

When most people today think of the NRA, they think of the political arm, and that political arm has become nearly exclusively a supporter of the Republican Party. And gun rights today are seen as only being for the Republican, and they’re seen a being a divisive issue, that gun owners are seen as being against freedom of speech. We’re seen as being pro-harm, we’re seen as being anti-LGBT. And that just can’t be further from the truth.

You and I are speaking in the wake of the worst mass shooting in modern American history, and the questions being debated now are what is to be done, what should be done, about guns, gun ownership, gun safety, gun regulation in this country?

Well, that’s an incredibly complicated question. I think if we knew what to do about mass shootings in general, we would probably have Nobel Peace Prizes.

I think there does need to be a real discussion in the United States about what is going to happen with guns? What restrictions do people want on the ability to obtain guns?

One of the things that comes up in the press fairly often are the issues of background checks. I think there’s tremendous support for the idea of a universal background check system, especially if that system is not going to burden the gun owner. Many gun owners see the idea of a universal system as one that would help us.

We’d like to see some common–sense policies suggested that would allow for a universal background check system that would eliminate this hodgepodge of state systems. It would allow gun owners more ability to transport our guns across state lines.

We’d like to see a system that would be effective to allow law enforcement to find out that people who have committed a crime or who have mental health issues who are not under existing law entitled to possess a gun legally, that it would be more effective in catching them.

At the same time we recognize that background checks shouldn’t be used as a proxy for a registry that could be used to take guns from lawful gun owners, that could be used to restrict the rights of certain classes of otherwise lawful people from having guns.

Is there a constitutional right to all kinds of guns, the ones that are not already banned?

I think this is a common misperception. AR-15s look like military weapons, but they’re not military weapons. There is not great consensus on even what “assault rifle” means.

Also, the Supreme Court has interpreted the 2nd Amendment as protecting weapons typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes. Right now, there’s something along the lines of 8 to 10 million of what are called modern sporting rifles, these so called assault weapons, in common usage in the U.S. I would say that because they are in such wide usage, that they are likely constitutionally protected.

Another thing to think about with them is that they are most likely the gun that causes the least amount of gun deaths in the United States in any given year.

But the most high-profile, I think.

They’re absolutely the most high-profile. They look scary. They seem scary. But in reality they don’t specifically work differently than other weapons.

People question whether there should be guns in civilian hands that can fire off 10 or 20 or 30 rounds in an extremely short period of time.

I think there is legitimate argument to be made about whether magazine capacity bans are effective and whether we should look at those. There is a huge divide within the Liberal Gun Club itself on that issue.

There have been some studies that suggest that magazine capacity restrictions are absolutely the most effective thing we could do to limit gun deaths in mass shooting situations, However, several of those studies have problems with their methodology.

I personally support them. Others, and certainly others in the Liberal Gun Club, think that they don’t help.

After the Newtown shootings, President Obama was angry and said things must change. The response of Wayne La Pierre, the head of the NRA, was that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

As to that example, people pointed to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. He was surrounded by six people with guns, all federal officers or local police, and he still got shot. Do you think that idea works, that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun?

Has a good guy with a gun ever stopped a bad guy with a gun? Certainly, I think that’s happened. I don’t think that’s always happened. And I think that’s a terrible oversimplification.

I think there are times that they have, in fact, that good guys with a gun have stopped bad guys. Now, do I think that is the only thing we should be looking at to “stop” the bad guys, to “stop” violence? Absolutely not.

What’s causing this violence in the first place? We need to address these underlying issues, and I think that’s one of the biggest ways that the Liberal Gun Club varies from the NRA. We really believe that we need to work at ways to solve issues of poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, drug and alcohol dependency, under- and unemployment, untreated mental health issues.

We need to look at the failed drug war, and we need to look at how we can provide a social safety net so that these things that correlate with violence -- not just gun violence but violence in all forms -- are reduced in our country

What about the idea of making people pass training safety tests to show they know what they’re doing with the weapon that they’re buying?

I would say that in the membership of the Liberal Gun Club, there is significant support for that idea. However, one of the concerns about it is that it doesn’t become an expense that would exclude people from gun ownership. However, there is something to be said for mandatory training and mandatory safety.

You have heard the phrase, too, as we all have, that any gun regulations start us down a slippery slope. Do you believe there’s no way of saying ‘this far but no further’ when it comes to gun safety laws?

No, I don’t. I think that’s the same argument as the 2nd Amendment is unlimited. I think that argument is incorrect. No less a conservative than Justice [Antonin] Scalia thought that was incorrect. I think that liberal gun owners understand the concern for a slippery slope, especially when people are calling for the confiscation of arms. But the idea that there can be no restriction? No , I think that is incorrect.

You’ve noted there’s a lot of discussion about ammunition and ammunition clips. You must laugh at the Chris Rock bit about charging $5,000 for a bullet as a crime-stopping technique.

I find that idea incredibly problematic for two reasons. One, I think that if you’re going to stop ammunition, you’re going to create the exact situation that alcohol prohibition did. You’re going to turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals because they’re going to ignore it.

I think the other issue is that that ignores how lawful gun owners use their weapons. If I’m going to be good and accurate with the guns that I have, I need to be able to practice with them, and to practice with them I need to have a sufficient amount of ammunition.

It was a comedy routine, though. But you’re concerned about the more serious implications.

I am concerned about the more serious implications because there are legislators in California right now who are looking to make it incredibly difficult for gun owners in California to get ammunition. The comedy bit – it’s funny, but it misunderstands how lawful gun owners use guns.

Questions are being raised about terrorists, people on terrorist watch lists, being able to buy weapons. Is your point that there should be maybe some kind of secondary check: “We’re going to look into this a little further before you can buy this gun”?

The problem with stopping the gun purchases, that the FBI recognized, is that if you’re going to stop that purchase, there must be due process for that person to challenge stopping [it]. And right now, the way the lists exist, there’s no due process at all. We don’t know how people are put on it.

We don’t know who’s on it. We don’t know how you get off it. There’s no way to get off the list. I would say, as a liberal, I’m against enemies lists of all types.

And it worries me that if this list can be used without due process to deprive someone of a constitutional right, what list is going to be used next to deprive someone of a different constitutional right? Having said that, I hope that this is a way that the lists that we have now are changed, so that there is due process for the people that are on them, and so we can stop terrorists from getting weapons.

How did you come to be a gun owner?

My husband is a Marine, and I have to say, I was a tremendous anti-gunner. And he and I would have these discussions, and he would say, “But, no, you don’t understand this about guns.” And I would say, “You’re right, I don’t understand.”

And so I said to him, “I’d like to learn this. But if I’m going to learn this, I don’t want you to teach me, I want to learn this with a woman instructor and I want to learn this with my own gun.”

And I’d say my story is very common for women. We wanted a voice in the debate, but we felt that we needed knowledge. And so we went out and we got that knowledge, and we found a sport that we really enjoyed.

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