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Gun Rights, Restrictions Under Scrutiny After Arizona Shooting

January 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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Arizona's gun laws are being examined in light of the Tucson tragedy as details emerge about how alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner obtained the weapons.

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Arizona shootings have renewed the debate over gun rights and restrictions and the easy access to weapons in some states.

In recent years, Arizona’s laws have grown increasingly more permissive.Arizona allows any law-abiding person to carry a handgun.No permits are needed to carry a weapon concealed or out in the open.There are no restrictions on sales of large clips of ammunition.And, this week, the state legislature will debate a measure to allow guns on college campuses.

For a closer look now at how Arizona’s gun laws compare to the rest of the country, we are joined by James Cavanaugh.He recently retired as a special agent in charge for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives last year, after 33 years of service.

Mr. Cavanaugh, thank you for talking with us.

And before I ask you about how Arizona’s laws compare, give us a rough picture of what laws are like across the country.We know there’s the Second Amendment that protects people’s right to bear arms.But, beyond that, what does the federal law say?

JAMES CAVANAUGH, former ATF special agent:Well, you know, the federal law is founded mostly in the Gun Control Act of 1968, Judy, which came into being right after the three horrible assassinations of the ’60s, President Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was running for president, and Dr. King right here in Tennessee.

And those three assassinations drove the Gun Control Act of ’68, which basically says that guns are to be purchased by buyers in their home states, and they would produce identification, and they would not be of prohibited categories, like convicted felons, persons adjudicated as mental defectives, or aliens illegally in the country, and some other categories.

So, that’s the federal law.It’s not very restrictive.There’s no federal registration, with the only exception that, since 1934, machine guns, silencers, hand grenades, sawed-off shotguns and certain weapons like that have to be registered with the government.

Those are the only real registered guns.And, so, what the Constitution defines and what’s been laid out by the Congress is a federal regulation and enforcement that allows each state to pass their own law, and the federal government regulates and enforces the interstate commerce action and the regulatory scheme that keeps guns out of the hands of the prohibited persons and in the flow of commerce.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just quickly, there is a mention of mental state and, you said, of convicted felons; is that right?

JAMES CAVANAUGH: No, that’s right.

And there’s a number of categories: illegal aliens, you know, persons who are addicted to drugs.There’s a number of categories.In the Arizona case, certainly, what’s coming to the forefront is this prohibition of persons adjudicated as mental defectives.

But that’s persons adjudicated by a court or committed by a court to a mental institution.So, that’s really one of the things that leaders need to discuss in Washington and in the states and the statehouses.Can that be tightened up?Is it appropriate in your state?And is it appropriate in the federal law as we have it?Because there’s a lot of gaps in there as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s — we’re going to show — I know this is just one measure of gun access, but we have a map I want to show our viewers of — shows the states by degree of restrictiveness when it comes to carrying concealed weapons.

And I guess it’s just two states and the District of Columbia that don’t allow any concealed weapons.Those are in red.And then 10 states have some restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.Those are in yellow.And, finally, all the remaining states have lenient or no laws in effect with regard to carrying concealed weapons.

How much do those laws mirror generally how restrictive states are, or not?

JAMES CAVANAUGH: Well, you have about 36 states now that have “shall issue” laws, which — where gun permits are given to good citizens who don’t have criminal records or other prohibited categories, like mental defective.

And it seems to work fairly well.In Tennessee here, we have more than 250,000 permitted concealed-carry.And it seems to work well.There’s not any real problems with it.Initially, they had some when they were issued.But it seems to work well.

And so we have got to be careful that, on the heels of this horrific and vulgar assassination attempt and murder, that we don’t over correct on gun owners.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

JAMES CAVANAUGH: Yet, we have to bring a legitimate discussion to the fore about what can be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But just to give our viewers a sense of across the country, roughly, are there regions of the country where it’s more restrictive and other areas where it’s not?How would you break it down?

JAMES CAVANAUGH: Yes. Generally, in the Northeast, in California and major urban centers, like, say, Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., tends to be more restrictive gun laws, traditionally.The states there, larger populations and, traditionally, have had more strict gun laws, registration of guns, more police checks, less gun dealers in the cities.So that’s been very restrictive.

The rest of the country, the central part of the country, the South, the West, like Arizona, have traditionally been very lax in their gun laws, because it goes with their society and their culture.That’s the way people live in those states for the most part.

So, it’s not as — it’s a different way of life, Arizona and New York City.It’s not seen the same way.It’s not operated the same way.So, you have to understand that balance going forward.The leaders really have to take into consideration all of those things in the country and then make decisions that help us all move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: James Cavanaugh, thank you very much for being with us.

JAMES CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Judy.