When should we have a gun-control debate?

After incidents like the massacre in Aurora, gun-control advocates adamantly demand a debate on new restrictions to prevent the use of firearms in mass murders, and accuse their opponents of callous disregard for the victims when they refuse to engage on the topic immediately.  Opponents accuse gun-control advocates of exploiting the victims and emotional turmoil to score points on a topic in which they routinely lose.  So when is a good time for a gun control debate? That’s the topic of my column at The Week today, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  First, the Washington Post reports that even Democrats don’t really want a debate on gun rights:

In the weeks after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, Senate Democrats led the way on passing a modest gun-control bill, even though they were in the minority. The issue commanded the national spotlight for a few weeks until it was blocked by House Republicans.

Thirteen years later, and now holding a majority in the Senate, Democrats have run for political cover after a similar suburban Denver shooting. Congressional leaders have declined to endorse any legislative remedy, and the most politically endangered Democrats have either fully embraced gun rights or lamented that nothing can be done.

The hushed response to last week’s tragedy signals just how fearful Democrats have become of anything that upsets the National Rifle Association, with its vast political clout, and how even once-ardent supporters of gun control are now resigned.

We hear about the NRA’s clout, but this is mainly a dodge to avoid the real truth, which is that the NRA simply represents the widespread consensus on gun rights.  In 2008, the NRA’s PAC contributed just over $1 million in all political races, with about 75% of those donations to Republicans.  In 2010, the NRA’s PAC donated $1.278 million in total, with roughly the same demonstration.  The gun rights lobby in its entirety in 2008 spent $1.187 million, which barely outpaced the pro-abortion lobby’s $1.015 million, and didn’t even make it to half of “human rights” lobby, which spent $2.495 million.

When we compare the NRA’s 2008 contribution against PACs other than single-issue, they get positively dwarfed in clout.  The top 20 PACs for the 2008 cycle all spent more than the entire gun lobby; the 20th, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, spent $2.21 million.  Of the top 20, eleven are unions, with the IBEW coming in second place with $3.344 million, 98% of which went to Democrats.  That cycle produced a Democratic President and large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.  If “clout” was all that was in play, then surely that Congress could have passed gun-control legislation as well as Card Check for their union backers.

Next, Sam Stein seems surprised by a poll of NRA members conducted by Frank Lutz in May and cited by the Center for American Progress, which he uses to argue that even NRA supporters back greater gun control:

According to a study unveiled at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday, 82 percent of 945 self-identified gun owners said they support requiring criminal background checks for gun purchasers. The sample was divided evenly between gun owners who were current or lapsed members of the NRA and non-NRA gun owners. 74 percent of the NRA members said they support the background checks.

The study, which was conducted in May by GOP wordsmith Frank Luntz, revealed the following data points as well:

  • 74 percent of NRA members believe permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed gun safety training.
  • 68 percent of NRA members believe permits should only be granted to applicants who do not have prior arrests for domestic violence.
  • 63 percent of NRA members believe permits should only be granted to applicants 21 years of age or older.
  • 75 percent of NRA members believe that concealed carry permits should be granted only to those applicants who have not committed any violent misdemeanors.

Taken in full, the numbers cut against the conventional wisdom, which holds that there is little political will for tackling gun control legislation in the wake of Friday’s shooting in Aurora, Colo. But that theory, the study’s authors insisted, was always based on a false reading of the public opinion data.

“Gun owners and NRA members overwhelmingly support common sense steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, even as the NRA leadership continues to oppose them,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which commissioned the study. “It’s time for those in Washington -– and those running for President –- to stand with gun owning citizens who are concerned about public safety, rather than influence peddling lobbyists who are obsessed with ideology.”

One can only conclude that this means NRA members support gun control if one ignores the fact that many states deny permits to people who meet those qualifications.  That’s why Minnesota finally passed a “must issue” law for gun permits that require county sheriffs to approve applications unless one of the above situations apply, after an eight-year campaign by local gun-rights advocates.  Wisconsin recently did the same.  Only Vermont allows people to carry weapons without a permit [see update], and most other states allow county sheriffs or the state to arbitrarily deny carry permits.  To buy a firearm, the federal government already requires these kind of background checks.

And as far as this incident goes, which of those above qualifiers would have prevented the Aurora shooter from getting a weapon?

To get back to my original question, when is a good time to have a gun-control debate?  My answer in The Week is that gun-rights activists are ready to have that debate, as long as people get their facts straight, which clearly hasn’t been the case in the last several days, starting with Brian Ross at ABC. However, we’ve been having this debate for decades, and the facts show that gun control doesn’t work, and providing for individual rights doesn’t increase crime:

Small wonder, then, that conservatives have balked at conducting a debate on gun control in the midst of such irresponsible behavior by the media. Though, in actuality, the main reason so few are interested in the debate is because it has largely been fought and decided. Americans have repeatedly rejected an expansion of gun-control because it doesn’t work. Look no further than Aurora, where both the city and the theater where the shooting occurred have rules forbidding the carrying of any firearms (the city statute was deemed unenforceable, however, because of the state’s concealed-carry permit statute). On top of that, no one can fire a weapon within Aurora city limits except at gun ranges — not even, apparently, in self-defense. Of course none of that stopped the perpetrator in this case from committing the murders.

What about other areas where gun control legislation has been implemented? Illinois has the most restrictive carry laws in the country, and Chicago has one of the toughest gun-control regulations among cities. Yet, the murder rate for Illinois is above the national average, according to the FBI (5.5 per 100,000 in 2010, compared to 4.8 murders for the rest of the country), as is the state’s violent crime rate (435.2 incidents per 100,000 compared to 403.6 nationally). Chicago recently lost a gun-control case at the Supreme Court (McDonald v. Chicago), but the city lost the gun-control argument years ago — considering that its murder rate is 18th among large American cities at 15.2 per 100,000, more than three times the national average. Washington D.C., which in 2008 lost its own Supreme Court gun control case, ranked seventh in 2010 with a 21.9 rate. For the record, Aurora’s murder rate was 7.1 per 100,000 in 2010, while other Colorado cities were significantly lower: 5.0 for Colorado Springs and 3.6 for Denver.

In comparison, Minnesota a few years ago passed a must-issue law that requires counties to issue carry permits unless specific reasons exist to deny the application. Critics of the law insisted that it would lead to a wave of shootings. Instead, in Minneapolis, crime rates have fallen to 1980s levels, with a murder rate of 9.7, 30th for large American cities despite Minneapolis being 16th in size. Its twin city St. Paul has a murder rate of 5.7. Other factors certainly contributed to those decreases in violent crime, but clearly, allowing responsible and law-abiding citizens to own and carry firearms did not increase crime rates.

We’ve had this debate, and gun control has lost it.  That’s why no one in Washington is willing to have it again.

Update: Actually, four states allow people to carry without a permit: Vermont, Arizona, Alaska, and Wyoming.  Thanks to the readers who provided me links to update my out-of-date knowledge on that issue.

Update: I should have been more clear — I was talking about concealed carry permits when discussing those states.  Some states allow open carry without permits or licenses, but that number is getting smaller, not larger; California won’t even allow open carry of unloaded firearms now.