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Former NRA president weighs in on Obama’s background check plan

January 13, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
President Obama recently laid out an executive action to strengthen enforcement of background checks on firearms, in an attempt to address gun violence in America. Judy Woodruff talks to former NRA president David Keene about his reaction to the president’s plan and whether the two sides could ever sit down and work on a compromise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, President Obama did mention gun control in his speech last night, if only obliquely.

But he addressed the subject at some length last week, when he announced three executive actions from the East Room of the White House. Those would require all gun sellers to be licensed and to conduct background checks on buyers, add 200 ATF agents to enforce gun laws, and increase spending on mental illness issues by $500 million.

He said fears that background checks would limit Americans’ rights were misplaced.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Contrary to the claims of what some gun rights proponents have suggested, this hasn’t been the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation. Contrary to claims of some presidential candidates, apparently, before this meeting, this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns. You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to David Keene. He is a former president of the National Rifle Association, currently the opinion editor at The Washington Times newspaper.

This is the latest installment in our ongoing coverage of this important issue, and it follows a recent conversation we had with Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and co-founder with her of Americans for Responsible Solutions. It’s a gun control advocacy group.

David Keene, welcome back to the program.

DAVID KEENE, Former NRA President: Pleasure to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I’m sure you know that the United States has something like 15 to 20 times the death rate from gun violence of any industrialized country.

We hear President Obama saying he wants to do something to reduce gun violence. He turned to those families on the stage, said, “I don’t want any more families to have to go through this.”

Is that not at least a worthy goal?

DAVID KEENE: Well, no one wants anybody to either die by accident or on purpose from a murderer.

But I do think that the president makes a mistake when he talks about gun violence, because we’re talking about very different things. We’re talking about gun crime, which we know how to deal with. And, in fact, as you will recall, before he made his speech, the early reports were that he was going to ask U.S. attorneys around the country to enforce federal laws against criminals using firearms. That didn’t make it into the list of proposals.

We at the NRA would have welcomed that, but he didn’t to that. What he has done is, he’s lumped these things together. The one encouraging part of what he did — and we don’t know yet whether it will be effective or not — is that at least for the first time there is a focus on the mental health problem, which is the real reason for most mass shooters.

They’re not traditional criminals. They’re people who have real mental problems. And they ought to be recognized and they ought to be put into the background check system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. And so you can agree with him spending more money on mental illness?

DAVID KEENE: Well, not just — if it’s just spending money, that doesn’t answer the question. We want to know how it’s being spent and whether or not there is a due process involved in putting people into the system.

But the theoretical answer is that, if it’s the kind of program we hope it is, would be yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why can’t the NRA and other guns rights organizations work with those on the other side of the issue to try to come up with a solution?

DAVID KEENE: Back in the ’90s, when the Brady people wanted a three-day waiting period, it was the NRA that suggested the FBI has the ability with modern technology to provide an instant check. We supported it.

You need to deal with specific problems, criminals, those who are potentially dangerous, but not put in large numbers of people who are a threat to no one and who simply are being harassed as a result of…


JUDY WOODRUFF: But the bottom line is, can these two sides get together?

DAVID KEENE: Well, the president said — as he tried to push us down the slippery slope during those remarks, he said…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean slippery slope?


DAVID KEENE: Well, he said there’s no slippery slope, that this doesn’t lead to something else. But in other speeches, he’s said…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The confiscation of guns.

DAVID KEENE: He has said that the countries that he admires for the way they have handled firearms are Great Britain and Australia, both of which have confiscated firearms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why can’t the two sides sit down at a table and come together some agreement? Every poll shows a huge majority of the American people think it should be harder for people who shouldn’t have a gun to get one.

DAVID KEENE: And they also think that honest, legitimate people who have a right under the Constitution to have a gun shouldn’t be burdened or overburdened in trying to get one and use one legally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Absolutely, so why can’t a coming together…

DAVID KEENE: There are things that can be done. And we’re happy to work with people to do that.

The problem is, we’re coming at it from such different perspectives that it’s very difficult. One of the problems is that you get the impression, Judy, that we’re awash in murder, and that it’s the result of the availability of guns.

In the ’90s, the murder rate was double what it is now, and half as many people had firearms. So, while I can’t say and won’t say that the existence of firearms has cut the murder rate, I can also say the existence of firearms hasn’t increased it, because it’s been decreasing. So, let’s deal with — let’s deal with the reality and not with these myths that we’re all taken with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying the number of guns, something like 270 million guns in this country, doesn’t have anything to do with the number of gun deaths?

DAVID KEENE: Look at it this way. In the 1990s, there were 180 million guns in this country. The murder rate was seven per 100,000. Today, there are 300 million guns, and the murder rate is 3.5 per 100,000.

So, if guns were the cause, you would expect the murder rate to increase. It hasn’t. What I’m saying is that talking about violence by talking about the gun as the problem is not an answer, because honest people don’t misuse firearms. Dishonest people do and should be punished for doing so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, quickly, what is one practical step that could be taken to get the two sides together?

DAVID KEENE: Well, first of all, we engage in a lot of conversation with prosecutors, law enforcement and the like.

I will tell you what we are opposed to, and that’s just throwing groups of people into the instant check system. We think we have to look at dangerousness. In other words, most mentally ill people are not a problem. They’re not a threat to themselves or a threat to you or me or anybody else.

In fact, they’re victims. There’s a small subset that we need to identify and who can be identified by rebuilding that system. If you can identify them, those are the people you want to keep the firearms out of the hands of. And we’re all for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the NRA and other guns rights groups have opposed more research, more fact-collecting, collection of information on gun crimes.

DAVID KEENE: No, no. That’s the president claim, that we have opposed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying and looking at this. That’s not what the amendment says. It says it can’t be used for propaganda and lobbying purposes.

And that’s what’s prohibited, not research. There is a lot of research going on all over the place on firearms, on crime, on suicides and the like. But it isn’t — it isn’t to be used for lobbying purposes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a conversation, that there is much to be said about it. And it will continue.

DAVID KEENE: It will go on for a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Keene, we thank you very much for coming to talk to us.

DAVID KEENE: My pleasure.