Why Hillary Clinton Can’t Win by Going After the NRA

Rekindling the culture war with the gun lobby is a losing proposition. Here’s what can be done to curb violence.

illustration: Marcos Chin for Bloomberg Businessweek

For the first time in 16 years, guns will play a prominent role in the presidential election. In 2000 energized gun-rights activists helped cost Al Gore his home state of Tennessee and Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. As much as Florida’s hanging chads and Ralph Nader’s third-party self-indulgence, pro-gun agitation put George W. Bush in a position to enjoy the Supreme Court’s delivery of the White House in Bush v. Gore.

After the Oct. 1 killings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., a visibly angry but oddly passive Barack Obama pointed out that the U.S. experiences a mass shooting every couple of months and “if you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views.” In her response to the massacre, Hillary Clinton detailed how, if elected president in November 2016, she’d pursue a more aggressive gun-control agenda than Obama. “It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA,” she said during the Democratic debate on Oct. 13.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 19, 2015. Subscribe now.
Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 19, 2015. Subscribe now.
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Clinton sees the gun issue as a way to motivate her progressive base while simultaneously outflanking her main primary challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders of rural firearm-friendly Vermont. Asked during the debate whether Sanders is “tough enough on guns,” Clinton answered, “No, not at all,” noting he’d voted repeatedly in the early 1990s against the criminal-background-check law. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party likes what it’s hearing from Clinton. “For a major presidential candidate to break the logjam in the way she’s doing is a momentous shift,” says Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

But Clinton may be making a mistake framing her argument in culture-war terms—as a battle against the National Rifle Association, which is a conspiracy-minded extremist group that thrives when under attack. Moreover, while some of her ideas make sense, others, including her emphasis on “assault weapons,” come straight from a tired, ineffective gun-control playbook.

What’s needed is a sorting out: fact from myth, reason from rhetoric. We also need to analyze rigorously the separate challenges posed by sensational mass shootings and ordinary violent crime.

Let’s begin with the folly of making the NRA the issue. “They’re celebrating at NRA headquarters in Fairfax [Va.] that Hillary is coming after them,” says longtime gun-rights activist Richard Feldman. “You can’t ask for better ammunition for the NRA.”

Clinton Says Sanders Isn’t Tough Enough on Guns

While the NRA has refrained from commenting directly on the nine horrific gunshot murders in Roseburg, it’s issued online alarms to the faithful in recent days condemning Clinton for “ratcheting up her attack on the nation’s gun lobbyists.” In particular, the NRA has highlighted the former secretary of state’s predebate comparison of its stubbornness to that of “the Iranians or the Communists.”

“Hillary Clinton is giving the NRA all the ‘proof’ it needs to persuade its members of the Big Conspiracy—that the Democrats are coming for their guns, even though in eight years in office, Obama didn’t really do that,” says Feldman, who knows whereof he speaks. He’s a former NRA organizer who’s lobbied for Glock and other gun manufacturers and now runs the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a small group based in New Hampshire. In another recent digital dispatch-cum-fundraising appeal, the NRA warned: “Gun Grabbers High on Hillary, Look to Her to Enact Controls Where Obama Failed.”

Rather than further excite already-motivated gun activists in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, sincere opponents of gun violence ought to shift the debate away from whether it’s weird to idolize firearms and toward what works to reduce crime. For better or worse, from 30 percent to 40 percent of American households have a gun, and many have more than one. We are a nation with 300 million firearms in private hands; for practical and constitutional reasons, there’s no prospect of mass confiscation. The guns aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon.

In his Roseburg response, Obama made an unpromising rhetorical move, contrasting American attitudes toward firearms with those of our English-speaking allies. Australia and Great Britain, he asserted, “have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings.” The Australian government responded to the 1996 massacre of 35 people in Port Arthur by outright banning certain weapons and instituting a gun-buyback program that led to the destruction of more than 600,000 firearms. After 16 Scottish children and their teacher were murdered the same year, the British Parliament banned private handgun ownership.

Good for the Brits and Aussies. Their dramatic responses probably did cut down on firearm mayhem. But that’s irrelevant to the U.S. As long as the Supreme Court interprets the Second Amendment as protecting an individual’s right to own a gun, we’re not banning pistols or confiscating semiautomatic rifles. Even apart from constitutional niceties, imagine being the sheriff assigned to scoop up all the handguns and AR-15 military-style rifles in some rural county in Texas. Short of a second civil war, it just ain’t happening.

So what makes sense? Plugging holes in existing laws and enforcing those laws more vigorously. On this score, Clinton and other Democrats have some solid suggestions.

Federal law already bars convicted felons, individuals adjudicated mentally ill, domestic abusers subject to restraining orders, and other categories of presumed dangerous people from obtaining firearms. But in a strange quirk, the same law obliges only licensed gun dealers to initiate FBI background checks to determine whether a would-be buyer falls into one of the prohibited categories. In most states, you don’t need a license to set up a card table at the county fairground or the local armory—or anywhere—and sell weapons. This anomaly has been confusingly branded the “gun show loophole,” as if the problem were weekend gatherings where people buy, sell, and gossip about guns. There’s nothing inherently wrong with gun shows. Indeed, as anyone who’s attended a typical gun show knows, most sellers at these events are licensed dealers who do perform background checks. The problem is that for no good reason “private” sellers—whether operating at a gun show, at their kitchen table, or increasingly via the Internet—don’t have to follow the rules.

This has serious consequences. In a fresh and still unpublished survey of more than 2,000 gun owners, Deborah Azrael at the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40 percent of respondents said they’d most recently acquired a firearm without a background check. That’s a gaping loophole.

Clinton has proposed requiring that anyone who regularly sells guns, whatever the venue, be deemed “in the business” of retailing firearms and therefore required to do background checks. This is an important clarification that she maintains could be accomplished by using the president’s executive authority—an implied dare to Obama to preempt her by moving on it now.

Clinton Takes Trump, Bush and NRA to Task on Guns

“Among the strategies to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people, universal background checks are the low-hanging fruit,” says Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. (Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group supported by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, endorses universal background checks.)

While we’re rationalizing the background-check system, there are two other straightforward reforms Congress ought to approve: Senator Blumenthal is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate an exemption allowing gun sales to go through automatically if, because of bureaucratic delay, a background check isn’t completed within 72 hours. The don’t-wait rule allowed the Charleston (S.C.) killer to buy a Glock .45, which he used to kill nine people at an African American church in June.

A second bill, sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would expand the domestic-abuse restraining-order rule to cover not only current and former spouses, but also abusive boyfriends and convicted stalkers. Clinton and some Democrats also favor repealing a 2005 law that shielded the gun industry from tobacco-style liability lawsuits filed by shooting victims or their relatives.

“Repeal could have a negative impact on all firearms manufacturers, the established ones and startups,” says Jonathan Mossberg, a scion of the Mossberg shotgun manufacturing family and chief executive of IGun Technology, a developer of digitally equipped firearms. He fears a flurry of frivolous lawsuits that will do nothing to increase safety. “This nonsense,” he adds, “will not end until people actually take responsibility for their own actions and cease placing the blame on inanimate objects.” Clinton also has tactical campaign reasons to stress the repeal: Senator Sanders supported the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in deference to gun activists in his home state of Vermont.

Clinton and other Democrats, however, have muddled their reaction to Roseburg by combining calls for universal background checks and reinstatement of gun-industry liability with demands for revival of the Bill Clinton-era “assault weapons” ban. From 1994 to 2004, when the ban expired, Americans were forbidden to buy an arbitrarily selected list of semiautomatic rifles (although with cosmetic changes, almost identical weapons remained available) and ammunition magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds. The ban had no discernible effect on crime levels, according to studies conducted in 1997 and 2004. If anything the porous prohibition made so-called assault weapons more notorious and therefore more popular among gun owners who went out and bought an extra one. And there were more to buy of certain brands, because in the runup to the ban, manufacturers such as Glock filled warehouses with grandfathered-in, large-capacity gear. All that happened was the price of the guns and magazines rose along with demand, putting more money in the pockets of the gun industry.

Focusing on assault weapons remains futile today. In 2014, according to the FBI, less than 3 percent of the roughly 12,000 murders in the U.S. were carried out with rifles of any sort, ranging from wooden-stock .22 squirrel plunkers to AR-15s, the civilian equivalents to the weapons used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Americans killed each other far more often with knives (13 percent) and hands and feet (6 percent) than they did with semiautomatic rifles. Handguns—concealable and plenty lethal—are the source of the overwhelming amount of gun crime, and that’s where the focus ought to be. We need to deny all prohibited individuals access to all guns, not just to particular types of weapons.

Which brings us to the distinction between the thousands of mundane gun crimes committed primarily with handguns and the sensationalized mass shootings that inspire our spasmodic debate about gun control. The litany of multivictim bloodshed is disgusting: Before Roseburg, we had Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and on and on back through the years. Mass shootings in public places get most of the attention, but individual murders on dark street corners and in living rooms are far more the norm. On a typical day, 30 Americans fall victim to gun homicides, mostly slain by inflamed family members, rival gangsters, or armed robbers. Suicide takes an even greater toll, as an additional 58 people a day kill themselves with guns.

While background checks may deter an interstate gun trafficker or a gang-banger who bothers to buy at retail, the FBI record system is unlikely to flag the next campus shooter. That’s because most mass killers lack serious criminal records or formal determinations that they’re mentally disturbed. As was the case in Roseburg, these deranged individuals, typically self-hating young men, plan their suicidal attacks carefully and obtain their arsenals legally.

That’s not to say that they don’t give warning. Most mass killers drop hints of what they’re plotting. The Roseburg maniac wrote in a recent blog post, “Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” The opportunity to observe such behavior puts the onus on parents, classmates, and teachers to keep an eye peeled for threatening utterances and behavior. The media bear responsibility, too. With the connivance of 24/7 cable news stations and websites, we have provided dangerous young men with a template for how to orchestrate attention-drenched suicide-massacres. As Second Amendment liberties come with costs, so First Amendment protections mean that lawmakers cannot stifle media coverage of mass killers. But media outlets can self-regulate, beginning with refraining from naming shooters and generally trying to lessen the dark celebrity they now routinely accrue.

Meanwhile, the terrorism-inspired ethos of “see something, say something” has to expand from airports and subways to school campuses and playgrounds. To facilitate action by concerned onlookers, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) has proposed a bill that would make it easier for relatives to force the mentally ill to follow psychotropic medication prescriptions. That’s an idea that Democrats would be wise to embrace.

Some municipalities have already taken smart steps to coordinate preventive measures aimed at the potentially dangerous mentally ill. In Los Angeles County, for example, police, mental health professionals, and school officials cooperate to train teachers to recognize troubling behavior and, when necessary, intervene before something terrible occurs. According to anecdotal media reports, the program has shown some success. A statewide initiative due to go into effect in California next year will allow relatives or the police to seek a judicial restraining order against someone who appears to be mentally deteriorating and has access to firearms. Other counties and states should follow suit.

Legitimate civil liberties concerns, as well as hesitation to stigmatize the mentally ill, will no doubt impose limits on how far society can go when seeking to label people as dangerous merely because they’re unwell. But that should not inhibit us from making cautious distinctions and, in extreme cases, trying to protect the unwell from harming themselves and others.

With the same sort of deliberate approach, we ought to distinguish between the various sorts of threats guns pose and make sure the solutions we consider are likely to ease problems, rather than make them worse. One thing’s certain: Mudslinging with the NRA is not the answer.

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