Editorial Director James Burnett

The journalist discusses the realities of gun violence in America, what has worked and what has not.

James Burnett is the Editorial Director and Managing Director of The Trace, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization founded in June 2015 to expand reporting on gun violence in the United States. In his two decades as a writer, editor, and newsroom leader, he has worked as Story Editor at The New Republic; as News Editor at New York Magazine, where a special issue he spearheaded won a National Magazine Award; and as the chief editor of Boston Magazine. He has a degree in Public Policy Studies from Duke University.

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TRANSCRIPT

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome James Burnett to this program. He is the editorial director and managing director of The Trace, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization reporting on gun issues. James, good to have you on the program.

James Burnett: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure. Let me start by asking how is it that one can even be nonpartisan these days on guns?

Burnett: So it’s certainly an issue with very strong opinions on both sides. We’re journalists, so that’s just a fundamental thing. But we do think there’s some objectives truths here. So since Las Vegas, I was just looking at the numbers from an organization called the Gun Violence Archives.

They’re a nonprofit. They’ve got a team of researchers. They create something close to a real time count of gun violence in America. So 800 more people shot since Las Vegas, 250…

Tavis: Hold on, hold on, hold on…

Burnett: Go ahead.

Tavis: 800 more shootings since Vegas, like a week ago?

Burnett: Like a week ago. Not all fatal. 250 fatal, and that’s not going to count suicides because those don’t show up in media accounts and other places. So, you know, that’s a big number.

Tavis: That’s a lot of shootings, yeah.

Burnett: Right. That’s a big number and as horrifying as something like a Las Vegas is to so many people in the country, it’s one piece of it. It’s a little bit like looking at the front part of a forest fire, but when we get the aerial view, it’s so much bigger.

Tavis: That raises two questions and I’m not naïve in asking the first, which is why we only seem to pay attention then when these issues of gun violence are sensational like what we saw in Vegas?

Burnett: Yeah. I think that’s something that we wrestle with. I think that it can feel, I don’t know, routine or accepted, but we have become accustomed to it. In some ways, the numbers are lower so that the homicide rate for the nation has dipped.

We try to look at some of the communities, some of the neighborhoods, where the number hasn’t come down and where the effects are just so much higher than they are in other places.

Tavis: Let me ask this another way. Do you think that except for and unless and until something like a Vegas happens that we become anesthetized to gun violence in this country?

Burnett: We might be anesthetized. I mean, I think, look, it’s not fun, for lack of a better word, right? This is an upsetting subject and I think there is a natural tendency to tune it out after a while, yeah.

Tavis: Some would argue, though, not upsetting enough. Not upsetting enough to do anything about it.

Burnett: That’s right. And I think that there hasn’t been consensus around a particular solution. We would probably say nor should there be. This is a complicated issue, and the interventions, they’re going to need to be a bunch of different things that you would try. But, yes, so far, you haven’t seen the kind of movement or tipping point federally if the question is why haven’t we done something?

Tavis: I want to take that word consensus and sort of unpack that, James. I can appreciate the fact that on this issue that is so controversial and there are such disparate opinions, we might never reach a consensus.

But we don’t even need consensus. We need like 50 plus 1 to get something done in one body of Congress. Why can’t we even get to that threshold? If we never get to consensus, we can’t even get to 51?

Burnett: So far, I mean, that hasn’t been the case. If you look back to the last time that we had a big national moment, a big federal moment in Washington, D.C., was after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Yes, that was a time where there was a bill introduced that would have expanded the number of situations or scenarios during which someone would need to go through a background check to buy a gun.

Right now, if it’s a license dealer, yes. If it’s an unlicensed dealer through a private sale or an unlicensed seller at a gun show, no, right? So they were going to expand that. That didn’t pass because it didn’t have the numbers that you would need to get that through.

Tavis: If America doesn’t get serious after a bunch of white kids — it’s one thing to dismiss kids of color getting killed, it’s another thing to dismiss gun violence in communities of color — but when white babies get gunned down at school, if America doesn’t have the courage to do anything about gun violence then, my sense is it ain’t never gonna happen. I raise that only because it appears that I may be wrong. Appears is the key phrase here, key word.

It appears I may be wrong about that assessment because, if I’m to believe what I read, the NRA may have just taken a step backward or forward, depending on how one looks at it, on these bump stocks which we have seen, of course, come into debate since the Vegas shooting. So am I right or am I wrong about the fact that something may be about to happen if only on bump stocks?

Burnett: Well, so it’s that something’s going to matter here and the devil’s in the details.

Tavis: Okay.

Burnett: What the NRA said was after these bump stock devices — these are devices that let a semiautomatic rifle shoot basically like an automatic rifle, what we think of as a machine gun. Those are very strictly regulated and restricted. Semiautomatic rifles, you can buy in big box stores and widely available.

So you take a thing that is not very well regulated or widely regulated and turn it into something strictly controlled. 58 dead, around 500 injured through bullet wounds while escaping, these devices, these bump stocks, there’s not a big community behind them.

There are some people who like to use them. They don’t have the kind of self-defense application where you could say, oh, this is something that’s part of sort of routine self-defense gun ownership. So they don’t have a strong constituency behind them. And we see what happened in Las Vegas and it’s just hard to defend them, right?

But what the NRA has said was we should look at those again. The ATF, which regulates and polices guns in America, should look at those. They classified those. They said, what is this? Is it a duck? Is this a goose? Is this a gun or a gun accessory?

It’s an accessory, the ATF decided, so it’s not our jurisdiction basically, right? NRA says, ATF, take another look. Congress, don’t vote. We don’t want you to vote on that. In fact, what we want you to vote on is a separate piece of legislation, a very different piece of legislation.

The technical term is concealed carry reciprocity. It basically says that, if you have a gun permit from Arizona, it should be good in California, whether California wants it to be or not, and so on. Down the line, basically removing the authority for states to decide whose permits they can accept. That’s what the NRA really wants a vote on. That’s what they’ve said after Las Vegas.

Tavis: I’m just a country boy, but that sounds like bait and switch to me.

Burnett: Uh…

Tavis: It sounds like they’ve put out this statement about bump stocks to get our attention that the NRA’s doing the right thing now. But what I thought I heard you say, though, is what they’re voting on, what they want Congress to vote on, something totally different which would actually expand, not reduce or shrink access to guns.

Burnett: That’s correct, or…

Tavis: The use of guns in various states.

Burnett: That’s correct. Or use of guns, right.

Tavis: The use of guns, yeah, yeah.

Burnett: The use of guns. Exactly right. You know, that’s your categorization of a bait and switch…

Tavis: It’s bait and switch. James can’t say it, but Tavis just did, yeah.

Burnett: But it’s certainly not as straightforward as some big grand bargain around this one product or category. It’s in fact kind of punting it back to the ATF and say you deal with it. And Democrats who want a law say we need a new statute.

We need to make this clear, so we need a vote. It’s a role of Congress to pass a new law here. So the fight of it is really technical, but the bigger question is, you know, should we have a big debate about regulating these products or not?

Tavis: I mean, I’m all for regulating bump stocks, but it sounds to me like, again, it’s much ado about nothing. If there’s not a large community here, number one — I mean, it’s the right thing to do, but if you’re talking about 10 or 12 people, what difference does it ultimately make?

And if the NRA says we want not Congress to look at it, but the ATF to look at it, and the ATF is saying it ain’t our purview, that’s what I define as much ado about nothing.

Burnett: Sure. And what we’re talking about, we’re talking about if it is the ATF, it’s a regulatory review process. That’s going to take some time. There are some things they can do in the reinterpretation of the definition of the law, but this isn’t swift public debate in Congress. This is the kind of thing that probably defuses attention, and we came back to what we talked about at the beginning of the conversation.

You know, is the country really engaged with this issue? Some people certainly are, but on a day-to-day basis, many people are not. So that’s the cycle we might see play out here. It’ll sort of — the temperature will come down a little bit. It becomes a regulatory issue and we move on.

Tavis: And then disappears, yeah, yeah.

Burnett: Exactly, exactly.

Tavis: So you just said something now that’s very powerful to me, James, I think, which is that we can point the finger at Congress or leaders in Washington for not doing anything, but ultimately it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that a lot of this responsibility falls on the American public because we do have the agency to do something about it.

So this cooling off period is not just a cooling off period that happens in Washington, but the NRA, of those who support guns and more access to guns, know full well that it’s just a matter of news cycles before the American public writ large moves on to something else and no longer holds them accountable.

Burnett: That may be the strategy or the play here. I think there’s — I was going to cite quickly something we looked at with a study…

Tavis: Please go ahead.

Burnett: Done after Sandy Hook. They looked and they broke down demographically by gender and whether you were basically pro gun rights or pro gun reform. Pro gun men were the most vocal across a number of political behaviors, giving money, contacting your Congressmen, expressing their views…

Tavis: Pro gun men are the most active on the gun question.

Burnett: Pro gun men. They were the most active on the gun question. And what happened was that voice was sort of loudest and most energized, then there wasn’t new legislation passed.

Now since then, there have been efforts and, I would say, momentum, I think is probably a fair categorization on the gun control side or the gun violence prevention side to get more organized, to have more of a grassroots presence.

But, you know, for people who are very strongly pro gun, a lot of times it’s an identity question. I mean, it kind of becomes core to their being because the gun has become their means for protection.

There’s a really smart book about this called “CitizenProtectors” where this sociologist spends a bunch of time with men who are concealed carry permit holders and feel themselves in a protector role or maybe they were a provider role. That’s their thesis before.

When you come down to it, it’s a very strongly held feeling and maybe we don’t have quite the intensity of feeling on the pro reform side where it becomes just your identity and you will go to the mat for that one question.

Tavis: There you have it, America. For them, it’s about identity, but for me, it’s about humanity.

So long as the folk who hold their identity, who think their identity is wrapped around their guns, as long as they’re the loudest voices and the most active, not just by being loudest, but to your point, they’re the loudest and most active around their identity and those of us who care about the whole of humanity are less loud and less active, this question will never get answered. James Burnett, good to have you on the program.

Burnett: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, sir. Up next, author and professor John Yoo, on what we should do about North Korea. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: October 10, 2017 at 1:43 pm