Washington's gun debate: What's next?
Despite the NRA's fierce opposition to gun control, Obama has an opening
A month after Newtown, let me offer some advice for Second Amendment supporters (and I am one): Stop being paranoid. Vice President Biden and President Obama aren't coming to take your guns. Says who? The Supreme Court, that's who. Its landmark 2008 decision (Heller v. District of Columbia) says that you have every right to own a firearm, and to use it for lawful purposes, such as defending your family and property. I agree with the Heller ruling. But much more importantly, it is the law of the land.
That said, Heller v. D.C. also has limitations that gun supporters often ignore. It reinforces basic common sense surrounding the conditions in which guns can be sold commercially, and who is — or is not — qualified to buy them. This is one area that Biden has been focusing on as he readies his recommendations to the president.
Biden has been looking at the so-called "gun-show loophole," which is linked to about 40 percent of gun sales, and, some claim, perhaps more. What is this "loophole," exactly?
Just ask Omar Samaha. At a Virginia gun show in 2009 he bought — in one hour — 10 weapons, including an AR-15 — a Colt semi-automatic assault weapon that is similar to the military's M-16. No questions asked. He also bought three rifles, four shotguns, and a handgun. ABC News, which fronted him $5,000 to make the gun show purchases, reports that Samaha "was never asked to fill out any type of background check. At one point he was asked to show identification. When Samaha said he didn't have any, the seller quickly relented, not wanting to lose a sale."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a loophole. A big, ugly loophole.
But it was the first weapon Samaha bought, a private deal right outside the entrance to the gun show, that had the biggest impact on him. It was a Glock. Here's how that transaction went down:
"I went up to him. 'How much do you want for it?'"
'Here's the cash.'
'Thanks. See you later.'
"That was it." [ABC News]
It was a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun that was used to kill Samaha's sister, Reema, in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. That shooting took 32 lives, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Virginia's loose laws are the norm. It is one of 33 states that don't require background checks for firearm sales at gun shows, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Polls show that most Americans support tougher — and universal — background checks on the kinds of buys that Omar Samaha was able to make so easily.
So the administration will propose "closing" this loophole through various means, though gun supporters say it won't accomplish much. They point to studies showing that few criminals get their guns at gun shows, and surveys of police chiefs who say, overwhelmingly, that gun shows aren't the problem. That's all true, and it's also true that if you've ever been to a gun show, you'd know that most guns offered for sale appear to be from federally licensed dealers. But still: Are you comfortable with the idea that a guy can just walk into a gun show and turn himself into a one-man army in an hour, no questions asked? I support the Second Amendment, but not that kind of craziness.
Biden is also likely to propose a national database that would track the sale and movement of guns, and cross-check gun buyers with mental-health data, though how the administration proposes to get around privacy issues remains to be seen. As one administration source puts it: We have a national no-fly list for airplanes, why not a no-buy list for guns?
The White House may also propose to reinstate the assault weapons ban (like the one Ronald Reagan supported, by the way), but since the ban's expiration in 2004, the National Rifle Association and its congressional allies have ignored the late president's wishes and crushed all attempts to reinstate it.
What about video games, which the National Rifle Association says bears some of the responsibility for gun violence? Biden met with industry representatives on Friday. Their message: Don't blame us. The industry already polices itself with a movie-style rating system for games, but if consumers choose to buy their product, hey, that's the free market. It's a moot point anyway: The Supreme Court in 2011 upheld their right to produce violent games on free speech grounds. So it's doubtful that the government could do much about videogames even if it wanted to.
And what of the NRA itself? Its representatives also met with Biden last week. NRA President David Keene says Biden met with them just for show and that he's already made up his mind on what to do. The NRA boasts of some 100,000 new members in the wake of the Newtown shootings (tragedy is apparently good for business), bringing its roster to an estimated 4.2 million. The financial and lobbying clout of the NRA can't be denied, and it has characterized Biden's efforts as nothing less than an all-out attack on the Second Amendment right of the citizenry to bear arms.
The White House has also looked at gun safety. But the NRA, which says it promotes gun safety, has criticized trigger locks and smart-gun technology like biometrics and grip pattern detection that can sense the owner of gun and allow only that person to fire it. One company, the Florida-based Mossberg Group, makes something called the "iGun" that can't be fired unless its owner is wearing a ring with a chip that activates the weapon. Nick Bilton, writing last week in The New York Times, mentions another company, Ireland's TriggerSmart, that has patented a childproof smart-gun. Among its features: A "safe zone" that can be installed in schools and acts as a force field, disabling any TriggerSmart gun that enters a designated area. "We believe we could have helped prevent the Newtown massacre," founder Robert McNamara tells Bilton.
If the NRA was serious about gun safety as it claims, it should be willing to discuss safety measures. But this knuckle-dragging aside, there are some NRA supporters in Congress who have said things must change. The door is open for the president. But as time passes and the passions of Newtown cool, the nation will move on, diminishing whatever opportunity he has to act. Until the next tragedy comes along.