A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
On every single level, from the election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden to House Congressional races and local ballot initiatives, the gun lobby's fear mongering lost.
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Is America's love affair with guns finally ready for a divorce? Is the NRA more bark than bite? Can anyone really make a sane argument for civilians having .50 caliber sniper rifles?
With a new administration not beholden to the zealots of the gun lobby, maybe some headway can finally be made in getting our national gun fixation under control.
BuzzFlash interviewed Scott Vogel, Communications Director of Freedom States Alliance (FSA). FSA is actively changing the way America thinks about guns in order to build and strengthen the grassroots movement to reduce gun violence. FSA believes that all Americans deserve to live in a country free from the fear, threat, and devastation caused by gun violence -- each one of us deserves to be safe in our homes, schools, and communities. The focus of FSA is to reduce gun-related deaths and injuries through public awareness campaigns and by providing technical assistance and support to grassroots organizations.
Freedom States Alliance works directly with a network of seven state-based gun violence prevention organizations. (In full disclosure, Mark Karlin, the Editor and Publisher of BuzzFlash.com, helped found FSA.)
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BuzzFlash: Did the National Rifle Association, or NRA, suffer a decisive defeat at the polls this year in the presidential race?
Scott Vogel: First, the Freedom States Alliance, which oversees our daily news blog, GunGuys.com, does not endorse political candidates. But having said that, yes, the gun lobby suffered a major defeat in this year's election cycle. It is one of the most important, yet "under reported" stories of this year's campaign.
On every single level, from the election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden to House Congressional races and local ballot initiatives, the gun lobby's fear mongering lost, and sensible candidates who support gun violence prevention won. In states where the gun lobby boasts of its power in key battleground states, and where the NRA claims to have large numbers of hunters and NRA members, such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Barack Obama won handily.
The Obama-Biden victory demonstrated definitively that our country is making a dramatic shift from the extremist agenda of the gun lobby to endorsing new leadership to address important issues, such as gun violence prevention.
Now, in this political environment, it is clear that President-elect Obama must act with crushing urgency to fix the broken economy, deal with two wars in the Middle East, and tackle the climate crisis. As gun violence prevention advocates, we also believe that we have a sensible, non-ideological administration now that is open to solving important problems, such as gun violence, in very pragmatic terms.
BuzzFlash: How did the NRA fare in U.S. House and Senate races?
Scott Vogel: There is no other way to say it, the gun lobby stepped into the "election ring" and got knocked out.
The Brady Campaign released a report in the aftermath of the elections and found that Brady-endorsed candidates won over 90% of their races. In U.S. Senate races between a Brady-backed candidate and an NRA -endorsed or "A" rated candidate, voters chose the Brady candidate 100% of the time, and in House races, 84% of the time.
Let's not forget that it was the NRA who said this was one of the most important elections in the organization's history, spending over $40 million dollars to defeat Barack Obama and other candidates who support common sense gun laws. After the gun lobby's dramatic defeats in 2006 and 2008, I think the American people should be asking if the gun lobby's extremist agenda is relevant anymore.
BuzzFlash: Putting this in context, is the reputation of the NRA as being invincible more perception than reality?
Scott Vogel: The NRA's political power is certainly based on "perception," but clearly that perspective is changing. Political observers and candidates are realizing that it doesn't help their careers and their standing to suck up to the gun lobby, and, in fact, it might spell the end of their political ambitions.
Also, keep in mind that over the last 25 years, fewer and fewer American households own guns, so the gun lobby's "base" has been dramatically shrinking. According to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), only 34% of U.S. households have guns, and individual gun ownership has dropped to only 22%. By every measure, this trending will continue downward.
I also think that the paranoia of "gun confiscation" preached by the gun lobby to block any and all efforts to enact common sense gun laws just doesn't resonate with voters anymore. I think the American people have, at least significantly, stopped listening to the NRA's scare tactics.
Take the issue of background checks on all gun sales, for example. Making it harder for drug dealers, domestic abusers, felons, and gang members to obtain deadly weapons by mandating a background check on every gun sale is simply a mainstream and sensible position. The great majority of the American people, across the entire political spectrum, support background checks. But the gun lobby vehemently opposes them and claims it will lead to "confiscating" all guns. I think many Americans have stopped listening to the delusional voices within the gun lobby.
The only leg that the gun lobby stands on is this "threat" that they can sway an election - which, as we have discussed, they clearly can't. I think the NRA's desperation will only get worse.
BuzzFlash: Why in the world does the NRA Institute for Legislative Action support the sale of weapons such as the .50 caliber sniper rifle that can be used to assassinate people from a mile away?
Scott Vogel: The gun lobby's position on pretty much every proposal to protect our national security and our communities from the threat of gun violence, including .50 caliber sniper rifles, can be summed up in one word: "No." The NRA simply has a knee-jerk reaction to every life-saving policy, if it involves regulating the gun industry in any way. The gun lobby has blinders on to the real world, and they fight every policy on an extreme and ideological basis. Their opposition makes no sense.
Even though the NRA knows that the national security of the United States is vulnerable to attack from powerful .50 caliber sniper rifles, especially our civilian aircraft during takeoff and landing, the gun lobby opposes our efforts to keep .50 caliber sniper rifles out of the hands of terrorists. The reason is that supporting a ban on .50 caliber sniper rifles would make the gun lobby look "weak" to their base of extremists who fight under the banner of "no surrender," not to mention the immense profit motive by the gun industry to sell .50 caliber rifles. The five men just convicted on conspiracy charges for a terrorist plot against Ft. Dix had practiced with and tried to buy assault weapons.
But the NRA knows that if there was ever, god forbid, an attack with a .50 caliber sniper rifle - which is why we are urgently calling for an immediate federal ban on these weapons of terror - the gun lobby would have to face the intense scrutiny of the American public about why they enabled a terrorist attack to occur.
BuzzFlash: Likewise, why is the NRA pushing for the right of individuals to shoot anyone they even perceive as a threat to them, or "claim" is a threat to them?
Scott Vogel: To some extent, the gun lobby has started running out of ideas to push on behalf of their base. Their agenda to allow armed civilians a "license to murder," as we call it, to shoot and kill anyone whom a gun owner "feels" is a threat, even if his or her safety is not in jeopardy, is one of the most extreme positions that the NRA pushes.
The gun lobby is now venturing into areas that go beyond guns. They are supporting, in effect, vigilante justice. For example, there was an incident in Texas, where Joe Horn called a 9-1-1 operator to report that his neighbor's house was being burglarized. Although the 9-1-1 operator told Horn to stay in his home, he took his shotgun, left his house and shot to death two men, both Hispanic immigrants, then claiming self-defense. This is just one chilling example. It is very troubling, especially to law enforcement officials and prosecutors who strongly oppose these "castle doctrine" type laws. The truth is that we already have legal protections for people defending themselves.
But that's not all that the gun lobby is pushing for in terms of extending their radical agenda. The gun lobby is fervently pressing to allow college students - we're talking about 18, 19, 20-year-old males mind you - to carry hidden and loaded guns on campus and in dorm rooms, despite their pervasive access to drugs and alcohol. They claim that their argument is to stop another Virginia Tech type massacre, but the reality is that they just want to eviscerate any and all restrictions on carrying deadly guns, whether it be on college campuses, or at child day care centers, nursing homes, hospitals, and even government buildings and courtrooms. It's an extreme position to say the least.
BuzzFlash: How do you think the Supreme Court ruling this year that held, for the first time in its history, that the Second Amendment protects the "right to keep and bear arms" will affect gun control in the future?
Scott Vogel: It's difficult to say how the Supreme Court's ruling in Heller, which stripped the District of Columbia of its decades old handgun ban, will impact legislation to stop gun violence in the long term. My organization, the Freedom States Alliance, believes it was simply a craven, political decision by the conservative majority that ignored longstanding precedent and the robust history of gun regulations in the United States.
It was an unprecedented reversal by the Court to suddenly strike down a gun violence prevention measure based on the claim that DC's gun laws violated the Second Amendment. The Court simply had no basis to hear the case, and certainly an even weaker argument in its ruling. In fact, even conservative legal scholars have lambasted the Supreme Court's ruling, notably criticizing Justice Scalia for his incoherent opinion. They have said that the Court had no business telling an American city that they can't deal with gun violence on the local level.
On the one hand, cities such as Chicago, where we live, are fighting to keep our handgun ban. But after the Court's Heller ruling, it's very uncertain. A federal judge in Chicago just upheld the city's ban, but it is now being appealed. Other Illinois communities are ending their handgun bans and replacing them with stringent gun regulations for fear of the enormous legal costs, for local governments trying to fight the gun lobby and potentially losing. They just can't afford the potential cost with this weakened economy.
One "possibility" is that the Court's ruling in Heller will take the sting out of the gun lobby's radical agenda by acknowledging that there is a "Second Amendment" right to own guns - which we fervently disagree with - but that right, in no way, prohibits common sense gun regulations.
To cite Justice Scalia himself from his majority opinion:
"Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited...[It is not a] right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. ...[The Court's] opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms," (p. 54-55).
In short, based on the Court's own decision, there is nothing in its ruling to prohibit robust regulations of firearms or the gun industry.
BuzzFlash: As a follow-up, what constitutes an "arm"? Is a bazooka an "arm"? A .50 caliber sniper rifle? How can the Supreme Court decide what constitutes an "arm" when the only guns around when the Constitution was written were flintlocks and muskets?
Scott Vogel: It's a very good question. At what point, as the industry continues to innovate with deadlier and more powerful weapons, is a "gun" no longer just a gun? That's why we need to better identify and classify firearms and make clear distinctions between bolt action hunting rifles, and cop-killing assault weapons, because there are important differences. The gun lobby has succeeded in blurring and weakening the definitions and functions of firearms to block legislation, often claiming that any gun regulation will affect "hunting rifles," which is patently not true.
Your point is well taken. Even if you believe in an interpretation that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership, the Amendment was written when muskets were not the deadly products that are mass produced today. Now a mentally unstable student can easily obtain two powerful handguns with multiple high-capacity magazines and commit mass murder, such as the 32 students and professors killed at Virginia Tech. As you said, a terrorist armed with a .50 caliber sniper rifle could target a chemical or industrial refinery in a horrific attack. Is this weapon a gun? I don't think so.
BuzzFlash: Recently the Interior Department implemented a regulation allowing individuals to carry hidden handguns into National Parks. Just why exactly would anyone need to bring a concealed handgun into a National Park?
Scott Vogel: Gun owners don't need to carry hidden and loaded guns in our national parks, or anywhere else, for that matter. The majority of Americans are in agreement, we simply don't want guns to be carried in our national pristine wilderness areas and national treasures. It's an offensive policy, frankly.
This is, yet again, another farewell gift by George W. Bush to his buddies in the gun lobby. There is simply no reason for this rule change. We are urging President-elect Obama, immediately upon taking office, to reverse the Interior Department's rule change.
During the Interior Department's public comment period on the proposed rule change, the Department received 140,000 comments, the vast majority opposing the gun lobby's radical agenda. But the Bush administration still went with the dangerous rule change anyway.
Most upsetting is that the Bush administration completely and utterly dismissed the advice of the career professionals who protect our national parks, including our park rangers, law enforcement officials, and conservationists. In a letter sent to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne on April 3, 2008, seven former directors of the National Park Service said that there was no need to change the existing regulation.
BuzzFlash: Do you think that handgun control proponents have given up the fight, given the string of concessions that the Bush Administration made to the NRA over the past 8 years, many of which were supported by Democrats?
Scott Vogel: I think that gun violence prevention advocates have felt the sting of the last eight years, living in the wilderness, as it were, under the Bush administration's extremist and pro-gun ideology. Remember, the NRA bragged in 2000 that if George W. Bush won election, they would be working out of his office, and they were right.
The gun lobby and gun industry got pretty much everything they wanted out of the Bush administration. It was their version of a shopping spree. The gun lobby succeeded in giving unprecedented legal immunity to the gun industry against civil lawsuits. They blocked efforts to renew and strengthen the federal assault weapons ban in 2004. They succeeded in preventing the release of gun crime trace data to local law enforcement officials to curb gun trafficking, called the Tiahrt Amendment.
As we just discussed, they allowed guns to be carried in our national parks. And although Bush's own Solicitor General asked that the Supreme Court send back the Heller case to the District of Columbia's Court of Appeals for a less stringent standard of review, Vice-President Cheney went against his own President and joined a legal brief from members of Congress who support the NRA.
And then, of course, there is the list of things they "didn't do," pressing for life-saving policies such as extending Brady background checks on all gun sales, or closing the gun show loophole, or even fully funding ATF to effectively close down rogue gun dealers. The Bush administration permitted the ever increasing lethality of firearms, standing idly by while .50 caliber sniper rifles became more prevalent and allowing an explosion of new and powerful assault weapons to be mass produced and mass marketed.
Although it seems like ancient history now, one of the biggest issues in the democratic primary in 2000 between Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice-President Al Gore was their differences on gun violence prevention. Bradley supported both licensing gun owners and registering guns, whereas Gore preferred licensing, and later advocated for background checks against Gov. Bush during the 2000 election.
In fact, when Jim Lehrer of the NewsHour asked what was the difference between Gore and Bush on the gun issue, Gore said of the Texas Governor: "He's with the NRA -- and I'm not."
President Clinton used gun control as a scapegoat for losing Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. And several of Gore's campaign advisers said that the "gun issue" cost him West Virginia and Arkansas - despite the fact that Gore won the popular vote and received a half million more votes over Bush. With all that in mind, the funding from several foundations, large donors and even advocates for gun violence prevention dried up or went away.
The prevailing wisdom in politics was that the "gun issue" was a losing position. For a time, many advocates simply felt that under President Bush's radical administration, gun control was a lost cause, and so we saw a kind of "depression" set in. It has been difficult.
But the truth is that there are advocates and organizations across the country that have not given up, and that continue to fight for their principles to enact solutions to save lives from gun violence.
Now, with a new administration, and a dramatically different point of view and expectation that government has a significant role to play in bettering our lives and society, we believe that there are opportunities, even small incremental steps, to start making a difference on the gun violence epidemic.
BuzzFlash: Do you believe that there might come a time when NRA members might become rational about the dangers of certain types of weaponry? After all, the NRA successfully supported the "right" of people on the FBI terrorists watch list to buy a gun. That threatens our national security. Why do members of the NRA support compromising our safety as a nation?
Scott Vogel: I think there will always be a radical fringe of the pro-gun movement that will always see attempts to reduce gun violence as an infringement on their survival, power, and identity. The gun issue is symbolic, and deeply embedded in the psyche of a lot of extreme gun owners. Those individuals are not like to change their beliefs and support efforts to curb gun violence.
Those gun owners see the world through a prism of fear, and imagine that enemies such as gun violence prevention advocates, are trying to take away their ability to defend themselves and their families.
But you're right, it is deeply ironic that the same radical gun owners who live in perpetual fear of stronger gun laws being enacted actually risk their own lives and their families by owning guns, especially if their weapons are not stored securely.
But those fringe groups or individuals bear no real impact on our politics. The truth is that over time, as gun ownership continues to decrease, and as older generations pass on, the youth of today simply do not share the extremist viewpoints by the gun proponents of the past. Young people today, on the whole, don't see guns, just like the issue of equality for gay and lesbian Americans, as a divisive cultural issue. They are far more pragmatic and less ideological and extreme than the older generation.
I think the younger generation demonstrated that, in carrying Barack Obama to the White House, there is a space for a new and hopeful era in politics where government becomes a "solutions business." I also think that, just like the issue of global warming, we will continue to see a shift where gun violence becomes less of a divisive political issue, and more of a mainstream and bipartisan challenge for our generation to solve.
BuzzFlash interview by Mark Karlin.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW