The one-year anniversary of the horrific Newton elementary school massacre prompted much reflection on the role of guns in American society. One of the most fascinating ruminations came from an unlikely pair: Richard Feldman, a well-known Second Amendment advocate and former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, and Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. Gerney formerly served as a senior gun policy adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, noted gun-control proponent and founder of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek.
In a bold op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Feldman and Gerney propose a “grand bargain” they hope has the potential to draw support from both sides of the normally radioactive Second Amendment debate. In brief, they suggest three changes:
1. Giving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives more flexibility to discipline negligent gun store owners whose wares end up used in crime. The goal is to deter irresponsibility on the part of retail firearm dealers, while providing the ATF with a sliding scale of fines that would allow punishment short of store closure for cases of minor paperwork infractions. This good idea is already included in a bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and endorsed by the NRA.
2. Redefining the categories of people prohibited from owning a gun. Under existing federal law, convicted felons, domestic abusers, people adjudicated to be mentally ill, and several other categories are barred from purchasing or possessing guns. In a nod to rehabilitation, Feldman and Gerney would amend the rules to allow those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, such as marijuana possession and financial fraud, to become eligible after a period of years to have their gun rights reinstated. While giving a second chance to peaceful stoners and physically nonthreatening white-collar miscreants, Feldman and Gerney would expand the prohibited categories to bar people convicted of violent misdemeanors—stalking, assault, and the like. This seems like a reasonable trade-off. We should concentrate our attention on people prone to violence and make sure they don’t obtain firearms.
3. Imposing comprehensive background checks (with a loophole for transfers among friends and family) in exchange for gun-permit “reciprocity.” The most controversial part of Feldman and Gerney’s suggestions. The latter idea means that holders of state-issued concealed-carry permits would enjoy the right to carry their weapons even in states with tougher rules. Requiring background checks for all gun transactions, including those by nonlicensed “private” sellers, many of whom operate via the Internet, was President Barack Obama’s central—and unrealized—goal in the wake of Newtown. Gun-permit reciprocity is a longtime aspiration of the NRA. Since there isn’t any clear, hard evidence that lenient concealed-carry laws contribute to higher violent crime rates, I’d take this deal to achieve comprehensive background checks.
Whether the gun war combatants would go for a grand bargain as a first step toward defusing the hostilities over firearms is unclear. Smart, cautious money would bet no. These advocates often seem more determined to fight (and seek donations and work out various cultural resentments) than to compromise on policies that might actually curb the misuse of guns. Still, hats off to Feldman and Gerney for trying to spark debate by reaching across the battle lines and engaging in practical discussion.