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Gun Control: Putting on the Safety

May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate now is in its second week debating legislation originally aimed at getting tougher on juveniles who commit crimes, but gun control issues have dominated the debate. Yesterday afternoon, Senators agreed to require gun sellers to add a safety lock to every handgun sold. Just last summer, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated a similar proposal, but according to the amendment’s sponsor, the Colorado school shootings have changed more than a few minds.

SEN. HERB KOHL, (D-WI): In the wake of Littleton, both sides have grown up a bit– Democrats in acknowledging that the culture has something to do with juvenile violence today, and Republicans in endorsing reasonable measures to take handguns out of the hands of kids who shouldn’t have them. And so I applaud all of those on both sides of the aisle who have converted on safety locks.

KWAME HOLMAN: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch joined in supporting the amendment.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, (R-UT): For the first time, every handgun purchased from a manufacturer or importer or licensed dealer will have to be sold with a storage or child safety lock device. This amendment won’t change the fundamental principle that governmental action cannot be used to micromanage specific methods of parental responsibility. This amendment will give law-abiding gun owners the peace of mind of knowing their children are protected.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate began approving new gun control measures last week, passing a ban on possession of semiautomatic weapons by juveniles and a ban on the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips for assault weapons. But the most dramatic moment came when Republicans backed away from their call for voluntary background checks on purchasers at gun shows, and instead accepted a Democratic call for mandatory checks. And today, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he, too, supports the gun show legislation.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT, Speaker of the House: There are pawn shops and there are situations at gun shows where some dealers who are not licensed, and it’s actually legal for a person who’s under the age of 21 to purchase a handgun. I think that’s wrong.

KWAME HOLMAN: The House has not yet taken up gun control legislation. Still, President Clinton said today he’s pleased with Congress’s action on the issue.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want to commend the Senate for yesterday’s overwhelming bipartisan support for child safety locks, and I commend Speaker Hastert for his leadership in supporting background checks at gun shows and for raising the age of handgun ownership to 21. I urge the Senate to keep working on the justice bill, the Juvenile Justice Bill, and bring these common sense gestures to a vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate is expected to continue debating and voting on amendments to the Juvenile Justice Bill well into the night.

JIM LEHRER: And to Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is American Youth Violence. Norm Ornstein, how much of what is happening on these gun control issues is related directly to the Colorado school shootings?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There is no question that this issue has emerged now because of Colorado. There happened to be a very convenient vehicle, the Juvenile Justice Bill, which had been kicking around Congress for a while. So it was there to exploit. But we wouldn’t be having this kind of debate with this vivid action if it weren’t for Columbine.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Zimring, do you agree? There’s been no real fundamental change in attitudes toward gun control, it’s just because of Colorado?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, there’s been no change certainly in public opinion attitudes. I think that there’s a history in the American gun control debate that sort of acute episodes of violence produce major legislative shifts. The gun control acts of 1968, and there were two of them, were in essence really the kind of memorials to the Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy assassinations. And Littleton seems to have captured public attention and created, I think, a different set of appreciated political risks for the politics of gun control at the national level.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Zimring, what is the history here show – that once there is one of these calamitous events, like say the Colorado shooting, and then there’s legislation, do the legislative and public attitudes stay there? Or do they swing back? What’s history on this?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, when you’re talking about public attitudes toward particular measures of gun control, they don’t really change much. 75 percent of the American public, give or take a few points, is always for things like registration and background checks and closing the gun show loophole, but the 70 or 75 percent of Americans who support those kinds of maneuvers don’t care terribly much. Those people who have high intensity feelings about gun legislation tend to be clustered in the opposition. And what happens when the whole issue of guns because more salient is that that 75 percent becomes more interested in gun legislation.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, now, Norm, on the National Rifle Association, of course is involved in every debate over any kind of gun issue. How should what’s happening in the Senate and in the House be related to the NRA and its power?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This is a sobering few weeks for the NRA. Of course, their bad luck started with the fact that they’d set up their national convention in Denver right in the aftermath of Columbine. They were put on the defensive at that point.

JIM LEHRER: But it had already been set up before the -

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It was set up before. It was just unfortunate luck for them that it became a focal point. Clearly the NRA, which has after all over the years exercised its clout frequently and been in the ascendancy more often than not, is now very much in disarray and on the defensive, internally they’re trying to figure out what to do. And they’ve had an internal power struggle over several years. The more extreme elements have tended to be more dominant there. But now they’re finding that their base support in Congress, those Republican supporters in Congress are starting to get a little distance from them, and the gun manufacturers themselves are getting a little distance from them. And now they’re being even attacked on the right from the gun owners of America, which is more adamant than they are. So this is a moment of reckoning for the NRA. Now, this has been, as you suggested, a pendulum that’s swung back and forth.

JIM LEHRER: They’ve had their down times before and they’ve come back.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And if you go back, I mean, Frank mentioned the 1968 act, which clearly came in the aftermath of those assassinations. Then we went through several years where the NRA relentlessly moved to chip away at that and in 1986 really had some success at weakening some of those provisions. They’ll be back, I am sure, because of the intensity of their supporters, but right now I think they haven’t seen a time when the public climate and the political climate has been unfavorable towards them and what they stand for, like they are seeing now.

JIM LEHRER: Norman, how significant is it — Speaker Hastert’s words on this, how significant a change is that for the Republican leadership?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s a change for Speaker Hastert himself, who has always opposed gun control measures. And it’s obviously a signal when the leaders of the Republican Party are starting to support specific gun control measures. It’s a signal when you see Orrin Hatch, who has also had that position. But remember, Jim, for the Republicans, this poses a little bit of a dilemma as well, because they have to navigate between their party’s base, which includes an awful lot of people who remain ardently against any gun control, and the broader climate, and trying not be in a position where as a party it looks like they’re defending the indefensible. What Speaker Hastert did today was to try and get some damage control to move away from defending the indefensible, like selling handguns to 18 year olds.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Zimring, how do you read the politics, the Democratic politics as well as the Republican politics on this?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, the Democratic politics gets to be a little extraordinary because I think that a lot of the Democrats looking at the next set of elections would just as soon have gun control as an issue as have legislation to claim as their own. So that from the Democrats’ perspective, it is not necessarily the case that a consensus bill is the best outcome. What’s happening with Republicans like the Speaker of the House of Representatives is a very encouraging move from what I would call the general to the specific. It used to be that the only question that a politician would be asked is how he felt about gun controls as if the thousands of different ways that we could regulate weapons were themselves a single yes or no question. What you begin to see in Congress last week and this week is a kind of a very important journey from the general to the specific. Trigger locks, who can be against trigger locks? The owner can always take them off. Closing the loophole at the gun shows, how important is that when you remove it from looking at it as a vote for or against this monolithic notion of gun control? So as long as the Republicans are going to take these proposals one at a time, it is stepping down from the symbolic politics of gun control and getting to the actual pragmatics. Meanwhile, a lot of the Democrats are going to see the larger political gain in keeping things with the symbolic politics of gun control and keeping the pressure on. For every amendment that the Republicans are going to pass in Senate, somebody’s going to come up with another amendment because the idea of dividing the party identities on whether they’re for or against gun control is right now to the advantage of the congressional Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: You read it the same way?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Very much so. It’s very interesting, though. If you think back ten years ago, the crime issue was defined in a very different way. The crime issue was defined on how tough you are on criminals, on mandatory sentences, on the death penalty. And it was Democrats on the defensive, often trying to defend what seemed to a large share of the public to be loony positions. Now the crime issue has been redefined, fundamentally as a gun issue. And it’s Republicans who are trying to get away from basically defending what seem to be loony positions, for assault weapons out there, for letting anybody have access to guns. So there’s really been a shift in the broader rhetoric, not just on the gun issue from broad to specific, as Frank says, but on the question of what it means to regulate and control crime in the country. And as long as we’re on that agenda, you move from remember Michael Dukakis in the debate, that seminal debate in 1988 trying to defend the indefensible — the question asked about how he would handle it if his wife was brutally assaulted and raped and murdered — to now dealing with a different set of issues. It’s gone from Democrats on the defensive on crime to Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: But what about Frank Zimring’s point about the specifics. When it moved to specifics like, you know, locks on guns and gun shows, then that changed the whole complexion of this debate.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It definitely has. You have a harder time defending to the American people a position that isn’t just a broad value position but a specific area where it seems on the surface, how could anybody oppose simply having gun locks available or secure passage to keep kids from simply picking up a gun in the house? When you move to that level, if you don’t support that, if you simply take a general position that you’re against all gun control, you look like you’re defending something that’s absolutely indefensible. Of course, what can happen now is we will have some of these specifics now, but Democrats will come back I’m sure with other vehicles and try to come up with even more and Republicans will complain that they’re trying to politicize the issue.

JIM LEHRER: And keep the heat on. Frank Zimring, do you see this as any kind of permanent change or watershed moment or just another moment?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well -

JIM LEHRER: Good luck, huh?

FRANKLIN ZIMRING: I’m skeptical about watersheds. If it is, then I think the nice thing that’s going to happen in the public appreciation of the crime debate is that we’re going to move from a debate which is about what is the single cause of violent crime in America — is it criminals or guns — to looking at it as a multi-causative phenomenon. But the kind of foxhole conversions that I think we’re seeing in this week and last week’s congressional debates are very much a product of the political moment. And I think before I declare any real shift in the character of the ideological dominance of the crime debate, I’m going to want to see that it survives the particular political moment of now. I do think that you have in the President of the United States a brilliant specific-issue politician who has at least shown his heirs in the Democratic Party how to use crime as a Democratic issue. But whether the long-term consciousness of elected officials will follow in that wake in a significant way is anybody’s guess.

JIM LEHRER: And in a word, you would agree, this is another battle?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s another battle. You know, this is not going to fundamentally change what happens out in the real world. These are symbolic steps. So it’s not as if all of a sudden we’re going to solve this problem or take major steps towards doing it.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.