Guns Don’t Kill People, Bullets Kill People

In the wake of the Arizona shooting, there is a whole lot of talk on Capitol Hill about stepped up background checks, no-gun zones around members of Congress, and banning the high-volume magazines that allowed the Tucson gunman to shoot so many bullets so fast.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), for one, is calling for “smart, rational gun-control laws that protect the right to bear arms but have reasonable limits.”

My friends on the left insist, hopefully, that the shock of the attack has fundamentally changed the political atmosphere, especially because one of the victims is a member of Congress.

I know they mean well, but experience suggests there is little chance the attack will produce significant new legislation, let alone change a national culture that has been accepting of guns since its inception—unless we try something new and different.

I say this having worked in the 1990s on the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban. Both measures enjoyed bipartisan support, but both encountered significant resistance from the gun lobby, and neither would have passed without significant compromise.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in response to the assassination attempt on President Reagan. It was named for Press Secretary Jim Brady, who was shot in the head by John Hinkley, Jr., and left paralyzed. It merely institutes reasonable background checks for gun owners. Yet it took twelve years to get it through Congress, with the NRA opposing it tooth and nail, spending millions of dollars in the process.

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban was part of the larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It outlawed nineteen models of firearms defined as "assault weapons," as well as large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. We had the support of law enforcement, but again the gun lobby opposed it and a sunset provision was required to secure its passage. In 2004, there was little enthusiasm for its renewal, so it expired.

My friends who live on the coasts fail to understand why this is, and why efforts to enact any gun control legislation since the Clinton years have failed. I know from my travels as a White House aide, however, and in my life spent traveling to nearly every state as a reporter, that once you leave the Northeast, the Bay Area and Hollywood, guns are part of daily life. My relatives in Texas would tell you that the right to carry is not just their Constitutional right, it is their “God-given right.”

Congress hasn’t passed any gun legislation in years because that institution, like the country it represents, celebrates gun ownership. Many members of Congress carry their weapons while riding around their districts, on their trucks or concealed behind their jackets. Representative Gabrielle Giffords herself has said that she owns a Glock—the same firearm used to attack her.

Sure, some Democrats may favor more restrictive gun laws, but even Democrats are hardly uniform in their support for gun control as a matter of policy. And as a matter of politics, even Democrats who may quietly support reasonable regulation have moved away from the issue since the Clinton years.

Fast forward to 2011: Democrats have lost seats in the Senate. Republicans control the House. The new majority offers "The Pledge to America," and gun control is certainly not a part of that.

“But,” my friends say, “the circumstances of the Tucson attack are different." The suspect obtained his weapon legally. One of his victims was a member of Congress, a Democrat. Another victim was a sitting judge, appointed by a Republican president. The shooter appears to have been suffering from some sort of mental disease or defect (whether legally insane or not).

    All true. But will those factors be enough help us see our way clear to Senator Charles Schumer’s vision of “rational gun-control laws?” 

    Only if we change our approach to draft legislation that recognizes, even accepts, gun culture in America.

    Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who was elected in 1996 after her husband was gunned down in a rampage on the Long Island Railroad, has introduced a new bill with a single focus: to ban large-capacity ammunition clips. The language is carefully crafted to target the magazines, not the weapons. It is not a gun-control bill, per se.

    McCarthy was elected on a gun control-heavy platform, but she has learned a few things since then. She has come to terms with the need to compromise, to work within the context and culture of our country. With her proposed legislation, McCarthy recognizes the recent US Supreme Court decision that finds a constitutional right to bear arms, and in her rhetoric, she is careful to preach “gun safety,” not “gun control.” It just might work.

    If we are going to have any movement on this issue, we must embrace this simple fact: what happened in Arizona is unlikely to change the habits or mindset of Americans who carry guns. For every American who says it should be a sign that gun control is necessary, there is another who believes an armed civilian could have stopped the carnage in Tucson.

    Of course, no armed civilian did. Instead, three unarmed bystanders tackled Jared Loughner when he stopped to reload. A fourth, a 61-year-old woman, grabbed his fully loaded magazine before he could re-insert it and fire another shot. But of course, he’d already fired thirty-one times, killing six and wounding thirteen.

    That is precisely the point of McCarthy’s legislation: limit access to those kinds of high-capacity magazines, and you will limit the kill capacity of mass murderers like Loughner, even if they have access to guns.

    Law-abiding gun owners can make this small sacrifice to increase everyone’s safety, and gun control advocates should focus on this realistic goal.

    To honor and respect the memories of those massacred in Tucson, Congress and the country should come together on this one issue. Ban large-capacity ammunition clips. It is the least we can do.

    Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.