The future of gun control

Today’s topic: What do you think is the future of gun control in America, especially after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller? What should we expect from the Democratic Congress and President Obama?

Complete Dust-Up: Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3

Americans support common-sense measures; will our leaders listen?
Point: Paul Helmke

First, I’d like to thank both The Times for inviting me to participate in this important discussion and you, Richard, for offering your perspective.

I’m optimistic that our elected officials are going to start addressing the problem of gun violence in this country in the near future. Given the recent epidemic of mass shootings; the police officers gunned down in Oakland, Pittsburgh and Miami; America’s role in providing the vast majority of guns being used by the drug cartels in Mexico; and the 30,000 dead and 70,000 wounded by guns each year in this country, it’s clear that what we’re doing now to reduce gun violence is not working.

Three recent developments are particularly encouraging.

First, the Heller decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last June makes it clear that the “right to keep and bear arms” is “not unlimited.” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that it would be “presumptively lawful” to restrict who gets guns, what types of guns people can get, where guns can be taken and how guns are sold, carried and stored.

Once the true implications of this decision sink in, politicians should no longer be able to use the 2nd Amendment as an excuse to do nothing about gun violence.

Second, key officials in the Obama administration have a long history of supporting efforts to reduce gun violence. President Obama brought up the distinction between legitimate gun uses and the problem with easy access to assault weapons in his speech at the Democratic National Convention last August. Vice President Joe Biden, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and many others have consistently talked about and supported efforts to reduce gun violence. These policymakers have a lot on their plate, but I am confident that they will use their power and positions to help make a difference on this issue.

Third, the public is a step ahead of Congress in pushing for action to reduce gun violence, but elected officials will have to catch up soon or risk losing their offices. Polling about specific gun-control proposals shows strong support from the public at large as well as gun owners. Over the last two election cycles, National Rifle Assn.-endorsed candidates have lost to Brady Campaign-endorsed candidates in about 85% of the races where we went head-to-head. I know of no candidate at any level in any part of the country who lost in 2006 or 2008 because of their support for common-sense measures to reduce gun violence. When Kirsten Gillibrand was named in January as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as senator from New York, it quickly became clear to her and the media that her 100% positive rating from the NRA wasn’t going to help her.

It is easy to get frustrated that our policymakers don’t move more quickly. Richard, if you and I can agree that there should be background checks for all gun sales, why can’t Congress get this done? Many of our elected officials have not yet fully grasped the implications of the Supreme Court’s Heller decision and the public and political support for addressing the problem of gun violence in our country. Yes, there are many other issues facing our leaders, but doing something now will help address public safety, public health and the quality of our communities.

Leadership isn’t always easy, but now is the time to act.

Paul Helmke, a former three-term mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., and past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Why gun owners care so passionately about their rights
Counterpoint: Richard Feldman

Paul, I join you in thanking The Times for giving us this opportunity to air our respective positions on this sensitive and timely issue.

The Supreme Court decision in the Heller case last year was quite clear on at least one major point. It held that the 2nd Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes ... such as self-defense in the home.” Paul, no one on my side of the gun debate ever suggested that violent felons maintain that right. This was a humongous win for the gun-rights community and an equally brutal defeat for your organization, which had always argued that only organized militias, not individual citizens, had that right.

I’m glad you brought up the past “gun control” positions of many in the current administration. Holder’s comments earlier this year about reinstating the assault-weapons ban may in fact have contributed to the alleged Pittsburgh shooter’s fear of government seizures. Reading Holder’s current “corrected” statements, it appears he’s been taken to the woodshed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, if I know Obama’s right-hand man, Emanuel’s staff as well. What I do know about Emanuel is that he astutely recognizes that the gun issue is one of the “third rails” of American electoral politics. What Democrats historically failed to understand is that gun owners consider guns a key issue, while those who are for “gun control” rarely use that as the basis for supporting or opposing a candidate. Therein lies an essential kernel of electoral wisdom: Gun owners care deeply about their firearms rights, while people who do not own guns may state their support for gun control to pollsters but care far less about the issue than gun owners.

Uninformed in their “all guns are basically evil” miasma, people who do not own guns have a hard time fathoming why millions of their fellow citizens (including more than 10 million self-identified liberal gun-owners) view their relationship to this democracy through the lens of the gun debate. If my elected officials basically trust me with the guns I own and have never misused, they are basically worthy of my trust (and thus my vote). If, on the other hand, those seeking my vote don’t trust me with those guns because some degenerate punks or mental midgets caused mayhem with the same type of firearm I own, they are no longer worthy of my trust or my vote.

Examples abound. Al Gore, once a supporter of gun rights, lost the presidency in 2000 because the folks from Tennessee that elected him a U.S. senator lost their trust in his judgment. Back in 1994, the U.S. House turned Republican for the first time in a generation not because of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, but because of the fear (or loss of trust) that the assault-weapons ban caused among mainstream, largely union lunch-bucket, working Democrats. Candidate Obama sought to correct that error by stating that he wasn’t going to take away anyone’s guns.

Finally, Paul, I never said I favored background checks on all gun transfers. It’s no wonder the NRA leadership doesn’t want to meet with you -- it could cost them their jobs. I stated very clearly that I support instant criminal background checks at gun shows where sellers do not know who the buyer is -- and only at gun shows. Last year, I sold an AR-15 rifle to my buddy in Vermont; he’s a former Chittenden County prosecutor. I know who he is. There are four kinds of people to whom I might ever sell guns outside a gun show: a friend, a neighbor, a relative or a co-worker. In each case, I know the person, period. If your “gun show loophole bill” overreaches to everyone at all times, I’m dead-set against it. It wouldn’t work, would create another bureaucracy and would put off those already suspicious of your real motives because you aren’t limiting the solution to the actual problem: sellers who don’t know the buyers.

Focus on the problem: keeping guns out of the wrong hands, not the gun, and you’ll find surprising agreement with Americas’ gun-owning community.

Richard Feldman is the author of “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist.” Previously, he was executive director of the firearms industry’s trade association and a regional political director for the National Rifle Assn.

Get our weekly Opinion newsletter