Challenges and Implications of President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals

January 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
To understand the realities of President Obama's new proposals on gun, Jeffrey Brown gets perspective from Josh Horwitz from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, David Kopel of the Independence Institute, Georgetown University School of Medicine's Dr. Liza Gold and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to the president’s proposal today on gun control, mental health and school safety.  We get four perspectives on the ideas, the realities of implementation, and the difficulties of passing new legislation. 

Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.  David Kopel is an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver and a gun rights advocate with the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute.  Dr. Liza Gold is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.  She just finished serving a term as vice president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.  And Norman Ornstein is a longtime Congress watcher and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Welcome to all of you. 

I want to start with you, Josh Horwitz.  What’s the most important aspect of what you heard — heard the president say? 

JOSHUA HORWITZ, Executive Director, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence:  Well, first of all, I think it’s great that we’re having this conversation today, and this day is a long time coming. 

And what I heard at the White House today was very exciting, which is that the president wants to have — ask Congress to have background checks on all gun sales.  Right now, as you know, only about 60 percent of the gun sales in America have background checks.  We believe that there’s no reason for criminals to be able to avoid the background check system, and we welcome this proposal. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  So the background checks is what jumped out as most key, most important to you? 

JOSH HORWITZ:  Well, a lot of great things happened today.  There was four top agenda items, including assault an weapons ban, a high-capacity magazine ban, and an anti-trafficking law.  Those things are incredibly important, and we don’t have those. 

Of course, the Assault weapons ban expired in 2004.  These are important pieces of an overall comprehensive program. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  David Kopel, let me go out to you.  What did you hear?  What seemed most important in what the president said today? 

DAVID KOPEL:  Well, I think we had two positive things.  One is he said he’s going to work to I guess change the regulations or do something to facilitate it so that gun stores — if people who are not customers of the gun store, but one guy is selling a gun to another and they want to come in and voluntarily go through the national InstaCheck system, he’s going to help the gun store facilitate that. 

And, really, in terms of expanding background checks to private sales, that’s as far as you can go in a practical sense.  Criminals who are selling guns to each other, it’s already illegal for them to do that.  And they’re not going to suddenly come in and start bringing their guns into gun stores for checks. 

But for the person who’s selling a gun to someone he knows may be reasonably well, but not absolutely, it’s a good thing to have that option.  Second, the president offered at least a start — of all the things, he said today, there was only one that would have made any practical difference and could have stopped all those murders at Newtown, and that was armed guards in the schools. 

The — what his proposal, which is — doesn’t have too much funding in it, but at least it’s a beginning, is to offer federal grants to some schools where they can choose to hire another counselor if they want to or they can hire what is called a school resource officer, basically a police officer who guards that school. 

We know that these attacks on schools — and, typically, when a law-abiding person with a firearm shows up and the attacker crumbles and kills himself.  So, the sooner that happens, the better.  And if we can have more police protecting our schools from what is almost inevitably the copycat crimes that this very intense media coverage seems to inspire, that’s a great start. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  I’m assuming, though, that you didn’t like many of the legislative proposals, the ban, the assault weapon ban, for example? 

DAVID KOPEL:  Well, the Department of Justice conducted a study of the effectiveness of that ban, published it in 2004, after it had been in effect for nine years, and concluded it had done absolutely no good.  No lives were saved.  There weren’t fewer shots fired in shoot-outs with police officers or anything else. 

So it was — it’s a proven failure.  Connecticut’s had a ban on so-called assault weapons in effect since 1993.  Obviously, that didn’t do any good at Newtown.  The problem is, the bans don’t have anything to do with how fast the guns fire or how powerful their bullets are.  It’s all based on these superficial things like whether the gun has a folding stock, whether there’s a grip on it, whether the grip is in the right place or the wrong place. 

And that’s really a trivial thing for us to be talking about…

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right. 

DAVID KOPEL:  … when we should be talking about how to keep guns out of the wrong hands and make sure that there are guns in the right hands. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right.  You know what?  Before I go on to the mental health, let me just come back to Josh Horwitz on that, just on that issue. 

JOSH HORWITZ: Well, look, I think the assault weapons we’re talking about are short-barreled rifles, which are carbines.  They take detachable magazines and they have pistol groups.  And that allows you to keep the barrel on the target for a long period of time. 

There’s no muzzle creep in those weapons.  You have magazines up to 100 rounds.  There’s just no use for those things.  And a bunch of scholars got together last Monday and Tuesday at Hopkins, Johns Hopkins, at a symposium.  They looked at a lot of different issues.  They looked at the evidence, and they recommended banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. 

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now I want to bring in Dr. Liza Gold. 

From a mental health perspective, what did you hear pro and con, good and bad that advances the ball here? 

DR. LIZA GOLD: Well, I think taking advantage of this opportunity to increase resources for mental health, resources in training for mental health, to get finally regulations on board that create parity in mental health insurance, to talk about guns in terms of people who are dangerous, as opposed to guns and the mentally ill, I think it’s been a big disservice to people who struggle with mental illness that these two subjects have been linked, because the majority of gun violence in this country has nothing to do with mental illness, and most people who are mentally ill are not violent. 

So to take it out of that context and put it back into a context of people who might be dangerous, a small section of those people may have mental illness.  But the increased training, awareness, focus on getting people identified and getting them referred to treatment is a good thing and long overdue, and should be broadened, actually, from what was proposed today. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And limits and complexities, though, are hard to implement at the same time, right, or a lot of questions going forward? 

LIZA GOLD: Well, sure, there are. 

And I think part of the reason for that is because we don’t really have a comprehensive mental health system in this country.  It’s almost a fallacy to call it a system.  It’s fragmented.  Treatment is difficult to access, often unaffordable.  This is an opportunity in terms of complexity to actually move forward by addressing how do we go get a comprehensive mental health service.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Norm, you have watched this before in a way, right?  So put in the some larger context here of the — of gun control politics. 

NORMAN ORNSTEIN:  Well, one thing to say, Jeff, is that six months ago or a year ago if we had been having this conversation, we would have said there’s no chance of doing anything here.  Congress has been completely intimidated by the NRA.

And the lesson that they drew from the assault weapons ban, even though there’s evidence that it wasn’t quite the case, is that it was devastating to Democrats who voted for it in 1994.  President Clinton says the same thing. 

The Connecticut tragedy, the horrific tragedy, changed the context and public opinion on a dime, and now we’re moving into a completely different environment.  It’s not an environment so different that all of these things are going to happen.  And an assault weapons ban is still a heavy lift. 

Remember, the assault weapons ban that we had was — had a lot of loopholes in it.  But the other elements, it’s just a different world.  And I think National Rifle Association is no longer supreme in the same way, and many of their own members I think are going to start to feel differently. 

When you get a Joe Manchin of West Virginia coming out and saying, I hunt, I don’t need more than three bullets in a magazine, you get other longstanding strong proponents of the Second Amendment saying it’s time for some changes, we’re moving into a different world. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  David Kopel, do you think the politics have changed here, or do you expect — well, there certainly will be challenges legislatively.  Will there also be challenges legally? 

DAVID KOPEL:  Oh, certainly.  Excuse me.

There will certainly be legal challenges because one important thing — the way things have changed is we now have the Supreme Court having affirmed that the Second Amendment is an individual right and the core of that individual right is self-defense.  So Joe Manchin is welcome to his opinion, which he’s stated to people from his own state just a few days ago, that he thinks the only reason people should have guns is for sports. 

But that’s not what the Second Amendment says.  The Second Amendment says that self-defense is the core of the Second Amendment.  So when you talk about taking away things because maybe they’re not used very often in deer hunting, but they’re critical to the Second Amendment, that’s a real problem. 

For example, the typical handgun that a person owns today, whether for protection in the home or for carrying, is the same kind of gun that police officers carry for just the same reason, that they’re the best for self-defense.  And that is very frequently a semiautomatic handgun with a magazine between 11 and 19 rounds, because the fact is lots of criminals don’t go down and fall down after being shot once or twice.

Sometimes, they’re on methamphetamine or cocaine, and they keep on going, or other times a lone individual can be attacked by a gang.  So the same reason that the police correctly choose these guns as the best for their job of defending themselves and others, ordinary citizens do the same. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right. 

DAVID KOPEL:  And maybe Joe Manchin doesn’t care about that, but I think the majority of the American public does. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask Josh Horwitz to respond to that.

Where do you see the politics of this now? 

JOSH HORWITZ: Well, I think politics have drastically changed on this. 

And it’s interesting.  I think that there’s an equation that’s changed.  And that is, you have now the NRA’s PAC, which was found to be one of the least effective in this cycle.  You have people like Tim Kaine easily winning elections in a state like Virginia taking on the NRA.  And of course you have Michael Bloomberg spending money on this and defeating A-rated NRA candidates. 

So the whole calculus has changed.  It used to be that the NRA was sort of the one game in town on the money front and on the PAC front.  That’s completely changed.  So there’s a real cost now for standing with — sort of standing with the NRA.  And that is just, I think, as you would say, a game-changer in that regard. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And, Dr. Gold, how does it change your world, the evolving politics here and events like Newtown? 

LIZA GOLD: Well, it’s — you know, from my perspective — and I’m not a gun expert, obviously — but from my perspective, it’s really unfortunate that it takes these kinds of events to move forward with our country to make a stronger commitment to providing for mental health care needs of our citizens. 

It shouldn’t have to take something like this for something to become a social priority. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  But now that it’s here, as you were saying before, there’s still going to be many, many questions about how you implement unit. 

Last night, we talked about New York state and various states taking some proposals.


JEFFREY BROWN:  There’s going to be confidentiality issues.  There’s many — there’s a long way to go on this, right? 


There is a long way to go.  And the American Psychiatric Association, which had a place at the table with Dr. Paul Appelbaum at Vice President Biden’s commission, will continue to be very involved in this.  They issued a statement today applauding President Obama’s proposals. 

I think it’s a first step.  There is a long way to go.  And I think that, if we can conceptualize it as trying to find an integrated, comprehensive system of mental health care services delivery, we will be moving in the right direction. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, let me ask you, Norm, finally and briefly, how important is the president’s real involvement in this, and especially vis-a-vis other things on his plate to spend capital on?

 NORMAN ORNSTEIN:  We have a heavy agenda.  I think he’s going to go to the public.  And that will be very important.

But there’s an important thing to keep in mind.  For all these political changes, Jeff, the House has not changed very much.  And I think we’re going to see a Senate quite receptive to many of these things, maybe not the assault weapons ban.  The House is a much heavier lift.  And House Republicans are the real obstacle to getting many of these things through. 

How much the president can affect that, I’m a little more skeptical.  JEFFREY BROWN:  Norm Ornstein, Dr. Liza Gold, David Kopel, and Josh Horwitz, thank you all very much. 

LIZA GOLD:  Thank you. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And we have more on the debate on gun control online, including an opportunity for you to weigh in with your views on the new proposal.  Also, you will find a link to a ProPublica report.  The interactive graphic lets you see where each member of Congress stands on gun rights, an assault weapons ban and more.