Shields and Brooks on Gun Control Policy, Susan Rice, ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Talks

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and ways to approach gun control reform, as well as Susan Rice’s decision not to pursue the nomination for Secretary of State and the state of the ‘fiscal cliff’ conversations.

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    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    So, gentlemen, we have all been torn up all day long today with this terrible shooting in Connecticut.

    David, it — just, it is beyond understanding, so how do we make sense of something like this?


    Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that you realize the tremendous difference between the process of the grief, the process of the shock, the process of processing all we're feeling today, and the policy process.

    One is just this innate outpouring of grief. And then the policy process is about cost-benefit analysis, about studies and counterstudies. You're trying to figure out what would work. And so you feel almost cheap on a day like today. You think, down the road, we will talk about what works, what doesn't.

    Already, the debates are starting, gun control, all the different policy options on the table. But I am willing to enter into those debates, I guess. But you just want to register the — just the emotion you feel for the scenes, the empathy you feel for the parents and so on.


    The president certainly did that today, Mark. But it seems to me we ask — we ask the same questions over and over again every time one of these things happens.


    You're right, Judy. And I agree with what David said.

    I would just point out the president delivered his remarks in the James S. Brady Press Briefing at the White House, James S. Brady, who was shot and crippled permanently in an assassination attempt when he was press secretary to President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

    And we have the thoughts and the prayers and the flags at half-mast. But what we don't have — and it's the hallmark of a — I think, of a cowering political and public body — that is, we don't have a debate. We don't have a discussion.

    And the question about — is not whether somebody stands for or against this, whether you even bring it up. And the reality is that in the United States of America in 2012, it's easier in many states to rent an automobile — to buy an automatic weapon than it is to rent an automobile. It's more demanding.

    And I just — you know, one of the things about having been in the Marine Corps is that they teach you how to use guns. They teach you how to use rifles and handguns and automatic weapons. And you come away with just one conclusion, if you reflect on it, and that is they are tools of destruction. They are meant to kill people. That's all.

    They're not sporting equipment, as Jim Lehrer has remarked. And they're not tennis rackets. They're not shoulder pads or baseballs. I mean, they are tools of destruction meant to do what was done today. And I just think our society has failed to confront, and particularly our political leadership, but all of us have failed to confront that. Oh, gee, it's too tough an issue.

    But, I mean, the reality is, there are too many guns in hands of people who just shouldn't have them. And if we can license people who clip our toenails and promote prize fights, then we sure as hell ought to be able to license people who have automatic weapons.


    How do you see that?


    Well, I guess I don't know anything about this case. We don't know who the shooter is. I guess we know now what the weaponry was.

    But after the Aurora case, I tried to look into and made my best decision about what would work. And it's very frustrating, because it's very hard to find things that would work.

    But there are sort of two avenues. There is the mental health avenue, which is — and it should be said that, the 98 percent of people who have mental illnesses are not violent. Even people with schizophrenia doesn't mean they are violent.

    But there is a small minority who do become violent. And so my belief was that being more aggressive, more assertive in trying to find those people and trying to deny people with those particular sorts of mental health issues access to guns was the way to go.

    I think it would be helpful in the media if we did not publicize these people, especially if they have committed suicide. Don't put them on the cover of magazines. Don't put their faces on TV. Don't release their names. I somehow think that would diminish some of the perverse heroism of them.

    As for the gun issue, I think there is a good case to be made for gun control because of the normal amount of killing that goes on with guns. I am a little more skeptical that gun control would reduce these sorts of incidents, because if you look at where they happen, they happen a lot here, they happen a lot in Europe, they happen in Korea, and Norway was the worst. Some of these are very tight gun control regimes.

    Second, the people who do them tend to be disturbed, but also meticulous planners. And in a country with 300 million guns, I'm skeptical we can keep it out of their hands. So I might be willing to pursue — I think it is a good idea to pursue more gun control. I am skeptical it will help prevent these cases.


    Well, the president said today that — he said something should be done, he said, regardless of the politics, in so many words. Do you think that is going to happen?


    I don't know.

    I think the president has to lead, I mean, because it's obvious that what we have is the National Rifle Association essentially has paralyzed the political process in this country. And Democrats who have any sort of rural constituencies are terrified to support gun control or even to bring up the subject.

    And Republicans are in lockstep, just sort of reflecting on the Second Amendment. I mean, we did ban machine guns in this country. You know, that's been done, and bazookas. I mean, that — we have had success in certain weapons. And, you know, I — it requires an enormous national will.

    But I don't know how else we're going to get that debate going, except by the tragedy of…


    I would — just purely in the political — the politics of it, a few points. First, gun ownership is way down. It's — we are at a historic low.

    Second, oddly — and I'm not sure why — I don't have any explanation for this — support for gun control laws has dropped significantly over the last 20 years. I'm not sure why that is.

    The third point is that these kind of shootings historically have had no effect on public opinion in the gun debate. And then I guess my final point would be, I think if we're going to control guns, we really have to do it massive.

    I think I'm all for getting rid of the assault weapons and machine guns and all that tough, but if we want to prevent something like this, we have to really think seriously about drastically reducing the number of guns in our society, and particularly — this is an old Patrick Daniel Moynihan idea — the number of bullets. It is very hard to control 300 million guns. The bullets are a little easier to control.


    But that makes it very unlikely, doesn't it, that something would happen?


    I mean, I think we won't know until it's — you know, until somebody takes that leadership. I mean, there have been, you know, a few lonely voices in Congress. I mean, Schumer has — Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York, has done it, raised it. But it's going to require obviously a larger coalition than that.


    A couple of other things that have happened this week I want to ask the two of you about.

    David, this really pushed out of the news the story that everybody was talking about last night, that — Susan Rice withdrawing her name to be secretary of state. What finally moved her to take her name out, do you think, and what does it say?


    Well, I don't really believe it was without White House acknowledgment. I think if she had a sense the White House was going to fight for her, I think she would have been happy to fight.

    She had a piece in The Washington Post today laying out the case for her. I think it is a pretty decent case.

    I hate it when these things happen, especially when there is no egregious sin that has been committed, and there certainly was none in this case. And so I wish frankly she — somebody would have fought a little harder for her. I think the ultimate…


    Are you saying the White House didn't fight hard…


    Well, they — the president made a very strong case early on.

    And then she went to the Hill, and things deteriorated. And then it has sort of been nothing.

    And maybe they didn't want to nominate her at all. We really don't even know that. But she certainly was left hanging around for a little while without much support. And they clearly decided this wasn't the fight they were going to have.


    Is there a lesson in all this?


    Well, don't be the good soldier. She was the good soldier.

    Secretaries of defense and state refused to go on the Sunday programs to explain what the policy and what the findings were from Benghazi. The director of the CIA did not go. And so Susan Rice did on that fateful Sunday after the ambassador's assassination.

    I think that's probably the first example, first lesson. She was out there by herself, I mean, make no mistake about it. The chorus of support was pretty muted.

    And when the criticism came, she — the president said she was extraordinary and got a big hand at a Cabinet meeting, but I didn't see anything further organized in her behalf.

    And there were — obviously, beyond John McCain's own apparent vendetta toward her from the 2008 campaign, there was — when you get Susan Collins and people like that starting to line up against you, I mean, there seemed to be a building resistance. It was going to be a tough fight.



    And I would just I think she — it wasn't her. She became, I think, for the opponents, a symbol of the Libya policy, which a lot of people didn't like the way the Libya thing was handled, even before Benghazi. And so it shouldn't reflect on her professionalism and competence, but she became a symbol.


    And we will find out in a few days whether it's John Kerry or somebody else. And we can talk about that later.


    Oh, yes. Oh…


    You want to…


    Well, I mean, just — John Kerry is interesting to me. He and Ted Kennedy were never close, even they were both senators from Massachusetts together.

    But, like Ted Kennedy, he has become, I think, a better public servant and certainly a better United States senator since he lost the presidency. Kennedy after 1980 became really the dominant figure in the Senate. I think John Kerry, since he lost the presidency and gave up all hopes of the White House, has become a far more formidable, influential and important senator.

    And I think that he would be a different kind of secretary of state.


    Less than a minute.

    John Boehner may have gone back to Ohio for the weekend. Fiscal cliff, do you know something behind the scenes that's happening that we don't know about, David?


    I know the gestalt, which is negative, that maybe we will have some limited deal, but it doesn't look good this week. This has not been a good week.


    Remember this. We have not voted on any entitlements in this country since 1983. We have not voted to — Republicans have not voted to raise a tax since 1990. No Republican in the House or the Senate has voted.

    I mean, this is a — we're heading into a major area. So, if it's halting, if it's slow, if it seems not quite open and dynamic, be patient. You know, I think we will get there. But I do think it's going to be difficult.


    Well, we're glad the two of you are part of our gestalt, Mark Shields, David Brooks.


    I wonder what gestalt means.



    Thank you.