Gun-control advocates think the only way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them is to make it harder for everybody to get them.
They should listen to some of the things National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, their biggest nemesis, has been saying.
These aren’t the usual NRA cliches about how President Barack Obama’s anti-gun bureaucrats are using mass shootings as an excuse to seize everybody’s guns. After so many tragedies — Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; the Washington Navy Yard — most NRA members are appalled by gun violence. But what is LaPierre saying about what it would take to stop or reduce it?
Here’s what he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a week after a contractor — who had a security clearance despite clear signs of mental distress — shot and killed a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics.”
LaPierre said much the same thing after Adam Lanza killed his mother and then used her guns to slay 20 first-grade children and six adults in Newtown last year. His comments on mental health were brushed off, and he was ridiculed for saying schools would be safer with armed guards.
Yet he was making a valid point. Better diagnostic and treatment systems stand a chance of preventing a disturbed person from descending into violent lunacy. That is the only way Lanza might have been stopped, because he didn’t buy any guns. Still, better coordination between state health authorities and the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System could more effectively prevent criminals and mentally ill people from buying guns — at least from federally licensed firearms dealers — by ensuring that their names are on the background-check list.
In April, the NRA vigorously and successfully opposed attempts by Senate Democrats to pass legislation to ban sales of semi-automatic rifles like the one Lanza used in Newtown, as well as to close the “gun-show loophole” that exempts private gun sellers, who account for anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of all sales, from the background-check requirement. When the Senate voted, no gun-control measures could get the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster, and the NRA crowed victory.
But again, listen to what LaPierre has been saying: “On the gun check, the NRA supported the gun check because we thought the mental records would be in the system; we thought criminals would be in the system. And we thought they would be prosecuted.”
There are hopeful signs that some people in Washington are beginning to take the issue of mental health care seriously. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and her cosponsors, including a handful of Republicans, are pushing the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which would promote emergency 24-hour psychiatric services and other improvements. Replacing services that were largely dismantled decades ago will take years and cost billions. LaPierre should be challenged to put at least some NRA lobbying clout, or money, where his mouth is on the issue of improvements in mental health care.
He also has made unexpected comments on other areas related to gun control. In 1999, he and the NRA supported universal background checks. “We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show,” he told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime at the time. “No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”
Yet the NRA fought tooth and nail last spring against the universal background check bill that failed in the Senate, saying it would “criminalize” private sales between family members and close friends and would be the first step toward a federal gun registry and eventual seizure.
In fact, the bill specifically banned establishment of a federal gun registry and included exemptions for sales between close relatives, and it had bipartisan sponsorship. It also included provisions to penalize states that lag in providing the database with names of criminals, addicts and people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill and reward states for complying faster.
This will come up again. LaPierre should be asked, once again, to tell the truth, and to live up to his own words.
If legislators who vote in lockstep with the NRA would take the trouble to read the legislation they vote on, and if they and their colleagues on the other side would pay closer attention to LaPierre’s statements, they might be able to fight their way through the cant that dominates the discussion about guns. They might then be able to find agreement on common-sense ways to reduce, if not eliminate, routine gun violence and periodic gun massacres.
At the very least, gun-control advocates could point out that LaPierre often speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He says, for example, that criminals pay no attention to gun-control laws, but he also says people who lie when filling out the forms for the background checks should be prosecuted but aren’t. He should be asked why the NRA fought legislation that would increase criminal penalties for “straw purchases” and gun trafficking.
Perhaps, of course, LaPierre occasionally says conciliatory things because he knows gun controllers have no chance. Even so, if made aware of his inconsistent positions, some legislators who vote in lockstep with the NRA might eventually see a path to an agreement on commonsense measures, mental health and, yes, gun control.
Craig R. Whitney, a former assistant managing editor and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of “Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.”