California Gun Control
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more on gun control efforts in California and elsewhere, we turn to two people who have written extensively on the issue: Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a non-profit organization in Dallas that seeks private sector solutions to public policy problems; and Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. Mr. Zimring, put this into perspective for us, these new measures. How significant are they?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING, University of California-Berkeley Law School: Well, the governor called California now the place with the toughest gun laws in the country. And I think that was a slight exaggeration. The package of five gun laws that have come out of California in the last month or month and a half, attempts to give backbone and to correct loopholes in a system California’s had for many years, which prohibits only those disqualified because they are too young or have criminal records from owning either handguns and long guns; that does provide a waiting period; that does provide for background checks. And now the attempt is to patch that up, and to try to make it work better. There are other places — New York with its Sullivan Law, Massachusetts comes to mind, where there are real attempts to restrict the availability of handguns to people who might want them and not qualify. That is the line that California draws. What it’s going to try and do is enforce its own laws, and also to go after two kinds of dangerous weapons: One, assault weapons, which are defined very broadly in the new legislation. And in that sense, I think California probably is in a leadership position.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And they are defining them by the way that the clip hangs down that sort of thing.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: By the mechanical capacities of semiautomatic weapons to fire lots of rounds and then the so-called Saturday Night Special. And here again California is out in front, but I don’t know where they’re going. And that is to say that everybody thinks that cheaply made handguns are a special problem. It’s a way of going after handguns that don’t have good social reputations. But the problem is in telling them apart from other kinds of handguns. The federal law used to…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you’re saying this is not a huge deal. It’s just taking it a couple steps further from where it was.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, it’s taking five steps. And it’s important in California because that’s an awful lot more legislation than they’ve had in 20 years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Burnett, how do you see the significance of these California measures?
STERLING BURNETT, National Center for Policy Analysis: Well, I think that they will be important to California gun owners and gun buyers. It will be more difficult for Californians. I don’t see it as presaging something going nationwide. I think that Mr. Zimring is correct, that, for instance, the cheap handgun ban, the safety testing that they are going to mandate, I’m not convinced it will stand up in court if it’s challenged in part because it is difficult to tell them apart, but also in part because it’s not clear it’s directed at handguns because they’re faulty. No one is claiming that the guns that are killing people, these guns that are used in terrible instances — no one is claiming they are not working properly. The problem is they are working properly and some people don’t like the fact that guns can be misused to kill people. And no one is claiming that they’re safety hazards in truth. And so it’s cosmetics than anything else. It’s a powerful symbol, but it is symbolic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that California is sort of at the cutting edge and now others will follow.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about that? Symbols can be important. Do you see it as symbolic?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, obviously the political symbolism of gun control in 1999, the year before a presidential election, is enormously important. It’s particularly important for Democrats who have a history of being on the losing end of the crime issue and have found in guns, under the political genius of President Clinton, a way to make Republicans uncomfortable on a crime-related issue. And I have to say that it looks like the Good Lord has been cooperating with the Democrats because what’s happened is two things at the same time in this country: Our crime rates are way down, but the random lethal violence has become a separate disturbance that the public is terribly worried about. And when you switch the subject from crime generally to lethal violence, guns with a capital “G” are right up there. So the symbolism is quite important.
STERLING BURNETT: Can I just interject there?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, go ahead.
STERLING BURNETT: It’s not clear that even random lethal violence is happening more often. In fact, shootings even in schools are down. It’s fact where it is occurring, for instance it’s occurring in suburban schools. When it was happening, when shootings were happening in inner city urban schools with minority populations, the press did not cover this. And now it’s happening in suburban schools and people are worried about it. But he is right, crime is down. And it’s not clear… and the reason I call these symbolic is because almost everyone admits these won’t stop the kinds of acts that you see. And it’s not clear to me that symbolism is a good reason to pass laws. As far as playing in the presidential election, you have a certain block of voters, about 15 percent, that say that’s their issue. They will vote on guns. It’s their only issue, perhaps. But a greater percentage of them don’t believe in more gun control than believe in it, and so it’s not clear to me if you are in a close election, and you want to get the gun vote, the gun vote you don’t want to lose is the people who don’t believe in more gun control because that’s what they vote on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett, why did you say you think this may not be a harbinger, what’s happening in California, nationally, what is happening nationally that it might not be, because of what you just said?
STERLING BURNETT: Well, in part because politicians have never been particularly stupid about their electoral prospects. They know whether people are going to turn out based upon gun control or whether they are going to turn out based upon the economy or crime and real criminals and enforcement, on a myriad of issues that are typically more important than gun control when it comes to a vote. There are other states that have passed some laws. But even if the wake, in the wake of these terrible instances in Colorado and Atlanta, polls show that support for more gun control or belief that more gun control will solve crime, the public is more skeptical. The numbers are down. And so what you find is even after these shootings, some states have passed laws that would ban cities from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh.
STERLING BURNETT: Very surprising, if you think that gun control is now going to happen everywhere.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve been looking at this issue for what, 30 years?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Too many.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you get the feeling that California, what’s happening here, is a harbinger, that is there some kind of a change and there will be more — more regulations of guns nationwide?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, I think one thing has changed, and changed importantly and another thing unfortunately has not. What has changed is that there used to be episodic focus on guns and gun control. And the issue now seems to have legs. It has been granted tenure in the public consciousness. It’s not something that goes away. And I think that is very different from the United States in the 1980′s and 1970′s. The problem is we still have an appetite for the free lunch in gun control, something that won’t inconvenience a lot of folks, and at the same time, will save thousands of lives. And the problem is that the more we want to take large bites out of firearms violence in the United States, the more we’re going to have to think about doing so in ways that are beyond inconvenience, but real changes in the structure of American society. And it’s much easier politically to sort of dress up the patchwork quilt of regulations California-style to think that there is a difference between Saturday Night Specials and handguns, when in fact it’s very difficult to find that. So I think that we’re going to be giving more attention to a problem which is chronically difficult to solve on a low-cost basis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Burnett, do you agree with that?
STERLING BURNETT: Well, I definitely agree with that. I think if you really wanted to affect firearms and crimes, you would have to take such drastic measures that Americans would be repulsed. I mean it’s no coincidence that almost half the homes in the U.S. have firearms. You know, more states are adding –allowing their citizens to carry concealed. And the evidence is that in those states crime is going down faster than the general rate of crime. And I think people are realizing this, that that explains in part why polls in 1978 showed 78 percent – I mean, 1990 showed 78 percent of the people believed more gun control laws were needed to restrict crime. And after Littleton, after the terrible incidents in Atlanta, only 63 percent of the people responded, still a majority, but a small majority. I think the public is becoming skeptical at the same time as, Mr. Zimring is correct, the media is focusing more and more on it. And I have a feeling that sometimes the media is just talking to themselves and not talking to the public on the issue.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, I wish we had more time for this but that’s all the time we have. Thank you both.