It should surprise no one that National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre has vowed to fight President Obama’s effort to require background checks on almost all would-be gun purchasers. Never mind that Americans overwhelmingly support that common-sense measure. Or that an estimated 25 to 35 percent of gun purchases currently go forward without such a check. Or that requiring nearly universal background checks could help keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, felons, and the mentally ill.
Hysteria and absolutism are, after all, LaPierre’s trademark tools for rallying his troops.
That will be a much-watched public fight. But as this country begins a serious debate about guns, citizens should realize just how determined and effective the gun lobby has been in its under-the-radar efforts to block not just gun-control measures themselves, but also gun-safety regulations and gun-related research, as well as the sharing of gun data that could help crime-fighting efforts.
“There has been an across-the-board attempt to keep any government agency, including law enforcement, from interfering in any way with respect to guns,” says John Rosenthal, founder and chairman of Stop Handgun Violence.
Consider, for example, this irony: Toy guns are among the 15,000 or so products whose manufacture and sale is regulated by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, but real firearms are not. The 1972 law creating the commission did not cover guns, but just to be sure the agency wouldn’t wander there, in 1976, pro-gun lawmakers amended its enabling legislation to prohibit any action regarding guns or ammunition.
We might have a better sense of how to reduce gun deaths and injuries, except that the pro-gun absolutists have successfully put an end to federally funded gun research. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once regularly sponsored such research. But when one careful study concluded that people in gun-owning households faced a far greater risk of homicide and suicide, the NRA swung into action.
First the gun lobby and its allies tried to cut the CDC’s budget by $2.6 million — the same amount CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention had spent on gun-related research the previous year. That money was ultimately restored. But the pro-gun forces succeeded in inserting this line into the CDC’s appropriation: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Worries about running afoul of that restriction — and fear of further retribution — took CDC out of the gun-research arena. One of Obama’s executive orders is aimed at restarting such research.
Then there are the so-called Tiahrt Amendments, named after former Republican Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, long the gun lobby’s go-to guy in its attempt to neuter the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. ATF regularly traces crime guns back to their point of sale. But after the agency issued a report saying that a tiny percentage of licensed gun dealers had sold a majority of guns used in crimes, Tiahrt launched a multi-year effort to keep that kind of edifying information under a tight lid.
Over the next few years, he attached budget riders — riders that made it into law — to prevent ATF from complying with Freedom of Information Act requests or otherwise releasing gun-trace data to the public. He and other gun-lobby allies next managed to forbid ATF from sharing gun-trace data with prosecutors or law-enforcement agencies for any purpose other than investigating or prosecuting specific crimes. That meant ATF data could not be used to identify, and crack down on, gun-trafficking. Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, another gun-lobby favorite, even pushed for prison terms for using gun-trace data for broader purposes.
Under intense counter-pressure from law enforcement, the Tiahrt restrictions have been loosened significantly in the last few years. Yet Tiahrt or Tiahrt-like restrictions still require the FBI to destroy background-check information and firearms-sales data within 24 hours after such a purchase is okayed. That renders it more difficult to investigate possible “straw” purchasers, who buy guns for others. Further, gun-trace data still can’t be used in civil proceedings against gun dealers.
There’s a stark lesson in all this. The gun absolutists and their allies have succeeded because they are better organized and more focused, and pursue their objectives with single-minded zeal. If we’re to pass sensible gun laws in this country, proponents will have to match the gun lobby’s discipline and determination at every step along the way.