Debate over gun ownership reemerges in Congress and the courts

Politics

GWEN IFILL: In the wake of the deadly Orlando nightclub shooting, the debate over gun violence faced a series of votes on Capitol Hill.

Lisa Desjardins reports.

LISA DESJARDINS: From courtrooms, to Congress, the often theoretical debate over guns touched ground today, eight days after the massacre in Orlando.

In Washington, a showdown on the Senate floor over four different gun control measures, from background checks to banning sales to those on the no-fly list. It was a classic partisan duel.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Republicans say hey, look, we tried. And all the time, they're cheerleaders for bosses at the NRA.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: Our colleagues want to make this about gun control. My colleagues many ways want to fight the symptoms without fighting the disease.

LISA DESJARDINS: Lots of debate, but no expected changes, when all was said and done.

Across the street, Supreme Court justices decided not to hear an appeal of semiautomatic weapons bans in Connecticut and New York. That means the bans stay in place. They were enacted after the school shooting in 2012, at Newtown, Connecticut.

Families of the Newtown victims were also watching this courtroom in Bridgeport, where a state judge heard arguments about whether they can sue a gun manufacturer. James Vogts represents Remington Arms, which made the semiautomatic rifle used in the Newtown shooting.

JAMES VOGTS, Attorney for Remington Arms: It's really not the role of this court, or perhaps a jury, to decide whether civilians, as a class, broad class of people, are not appropriate to own these class of firearms.

LISA DESJARDINS: Joshua Koskoff represents the families who are suing.

JOSHUA KOSKOFF, Attorney for Newtown Victims' Families: It was an AR-15 rifle, a weapon, Judge, that was designed to be used in combat by our military to assault and kill enemies of war. It was Remington's choice to entrust the most notorious American military killing machine to the public.

LISA DESJARDINS: Recent polls show Americans generally support gun restrictions. In a Reuters/Ipsos survey last week, about 71 percent approved of strong or moderate gun restrictions, while about 16 percent want basic limits and just 6 percent said firearms should have no or few restrictions.

But, as debate continues, so does the violence. In Chicago yesterday, police reported something rare, an apparent gang-related shooting using not a handgun, but a semiautomatic assault rifle.

WOMAN: When does it stop? What's going to — how do we get help with this? What do we do?

LISA DESJARDINS: The Chicago victim was 17 years old.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the recurring debate over gun laws and gun ownership, we turn now to Marcia Coyle, "NewsHour" regular and chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal," Evan Osnos, whose extensive report on concealed-carry laws appears in this week's "New Yorker" magazine, and, as you just heard, "NewsHour" correspondent Lisa Desjardins, who's been following the action on Capitol Hill.

As of now, this time 6:00 p.m. Eastern time tonight, do we have any — is there any possibility that any of the four gun bills that were up for a vote today might pass?

LISA DESJARDINS: Realistically, no. And we already know that one has failed, something that seems innocuous, increasing funding for background checks on the federal level. That has not received 60 votes.

It was Republican amendment. That didn't clear. We do not expect the other three to clear there that 60-vote bar either.

GWEN IFILL: In spite of what we just saw in terms of public opinion?

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right.

And when you look at public opinion here, there's a real disconnect. You see overwhelmingly, not just Americans as a whole, Gwen, supporting things like background checks, some moderate restrictions, you could say, but Republicans as a group.

Recently, Pew and many other groups have polled Republicans and they find 80-some percent sometimes support background checks, but yet Republicans on Capitol Hill are going the exact opposite directions.

GWEN IFILL: Today at the Supreme Court, Marcia, we saw that the court decided not to take up a challenge to two assault weapons bans in New York and Connecticut.

Now, we know that when the court doesn't do something, that doesn't necessarily mean a lot. But there's a record here. There's a pattern.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Well there is, the court not wanting to get back into this Second Amendment arena.

The court's had a number of petitions come before them in recent years. Even this year, there was another assault weapon-type ban out of Highland Park, Illinois. The challenge came there to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court didn't want to take it

up. It's not unusual for the court to allow certain questions to percolate in the lower courts after it's made a major ruling. And the major ruling, though, here came in 2008 in the so-called Heller decision involving the District of Columbia's handgun ban.

But they're just — you need four votes to take a case in the Supreme Court, and they just aren't there, despite some rather strong dissents from the denial of a review by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and the late Antonin Scalia.

GWEN IFILL: And those dissents are about the right to gun ownership, or what are they?

MARCIA COYLE: They're really about how the lower courts have been dealing with applying that 2008 landmark decision.

Those three justices have said at various times that they feel the lower courts aren't giving the right recognized by the Second Amendment the due that it should have, and that they are all over the map in how they examine restrictions on guns. And it's time, they feel, for the court to step back into this area.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Evan, let's take a step from these two branches of government and talk more specifically about the business branch of government, as it were.

There is a business incentive which has very little to do with the laws about why guns continue to be sold.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Well, this is the thing I think that is sort of a paradox, is at this very moment when we look at the effects that guns has had on the country in the last two weeks, the gun business is actually doing better than ever.

Smith & Wesson, the largest U.S. gun manufacturer, their stock price increased 10 percent by the time the market opened the day after Orlando. What's going on? The answer is that the industry occupies a very unique place in American culture. It's almost insulated from business pressures because of a law that was passed in Congress in 2005, meaning that if somebody wanted to bring a lawsuit, they couldn't do it now.

It's very hard to do it. One of the things we heard in the segment was about this lawsuit in Connecticut, and that lawsuit is enormously important, because what it's going to try to do is to figure out if the gun industry today, which has basically been able to profit in the period in which mass shootings have elevated the fear, have elevated people's desire to own a gun for self-defense, whether in fact the kinds of civil cases that have in the past have shaped industry's behavior, whether we're talking about BP, for instance, with oil, or whether we're talking about tobacco and how they market, whether in fact they will be shaped by their role in these kinds of national tragedies.

GWEN IFILL: Lisa, just as we have been talking, a second effort at gun control in the Senate this afternoon has failed. Now, here is my question about that, though.

As Evan just said, there's a distinct difference between an argument about gun control and self-defense. Self-defense seems like something everybody can get behind. Is that the argument that is playing out on the floor of the Senate or is it something more arcane?

LISA DESJARDINS: It's both.

The biggest argument to pay attention to I think for the endgame right now is the argument about the no-fly or terror watch list. And I say this because, while today's votes, we do not expect to be meaningful, there is a compromise effort under way led by Susan Collins of Maine just trying to pass something.

And we have seen even Donald Trump express interest in somehow preventing more people on the no-fly list from being able to get guns.

GWEN IFILL: That's something we have heard the president talk about too.

LISA DESJARDINS: That's right.

And the president, Democrats, they all talk sort of similar. But the difference there in is in the specifics. And it's about Republicans' mistrust of government having a list of Americans that it can block from having a gun.

The list is not public, you don't know when you're on the list, and Republicans say that's a problem. Now, they err on the side of let's not — let's err on the side of allowing more people the ability to buy guns. Democrats say no. Let's err on the side of preventing people who we think are dangerous from having guns. That's what they're working out right now.

GWEN IFILL: So, at the Supreme Court or in the courts in general, is there a long line of gun debates headed for the high court or does it pretty much stop at appeals courts? Does it pretty much stop farther down the line, so the court waits for conflict?

MARCIA COYLE: The court will wait for a conflict.

And they may get one involving Maryland's ban on assault weapons. That right now is in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and was argued in May, so a decision could come any day. But there's another factor too, Gwen, that I think comes into play here. And that is, the New York case that the Supreme Court didn't take today wasn't the major challenge.

The federal appellate court that ruled in the Connecticut case also had the New York — another New York challenge at the same time and uphold New York's ban back in October. In March, the largest gun rights group in New York decided not to go to the Supreme Court on the advice of their lawyers, for two reasons. One, Justice Scalia was no longer on the bench, the champion of the Second Amendment individual right.

And, two, we now have an eight-justice court and the possibility of a 4-4 split would mean that the lower court's opinion upholding both bans would stand in place. And they didn't want that precedent set.

GWEN IFILL: Fascinating.

Evan, in your piece in "The New Yorker," you talk about concealed-carry laws, which, among other things, has driven up the number of guns that have been sold, as has multiple gun ownership. One person can buy, can own eight guns. And that's happening more and more.

EVAN OSNOS: Right.

This is the thing we don't often talk about, which is that the biggest change that's gone on in the culture of guns and the business of guns over the last generation is that you can now legally carry them in all kinds of places you simply couldn't before.

Two decades ago, you simply couldn't leave your house in many states, 22 states. It was either illegal or restricted regulated to go outside with a gun. It's now legal in all 50 states. And this is really the beginning, I think, not the end, of a kind of national political conversation about whether or not we are ready for that, whether or not people accept that and where they accept that.

One of the reasons I think why the court has been reluctant to weigh in to what everybody agrees is probably the next great frontier in Second Amendment law, which is where can you carry and why, is because you see these radical differences in place to place.

And so far, what has happened is that the courts have basically said we're going to leave it to these local governments, state governments and lower governments to decide who can carry a gun and why.

GWEN IFILL: Lisa, final thought?

LISA DESJARDINS: And I think here's why we see the difference in politics between the American landscape. We see, as a percentage, fewer gun owners, but they are owning more guns. Just like we see in so many issues, it's becoming concentrated in very vocal minorities, but they're controlling the debate.

Lisa Desjardins, Evan Osnos at "The New Yorker" and Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," thank you all very much.

MARCIA COYLE: Pleasure.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks, Gwen.

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