, Salem, MA

February 4, 2013

Watson: Gun lobby distorts gun law facts and proposals

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — The good news is that the current gun control debate is large and prominent, and may be able to be sustained. Ample numbers of newspapers, politicians and citizens show every sign of desiring real change to the present status of the many factors involved behind mass shootings and other types of gun violence.

Whether we are discussing gun laws, the mental health system, the dynamics of media, video games, and the Internet, family dysfunction, the high school dropout rate, urban street violence, suicide or the sheer psychopathology of an individual shooter, there seems to be a growing appreciation that we can do better in adjusting the many and varied elements that make up the kaleidoscopic context in which gun violence occurs.

Last week, I wrote about improvements that we can make in our mental health system to better see and treat the mentally ill. This column will focus on the evolving debate about improving our gun laws.

In the United States, there are about 31,000 deaths — deliberate and accidental — per year at the end of the barrel of a gun. Almost two-thirds of those are suicides. There are roughly 330 million privately owned guns in the country, held by about 75 million owners. We have plenty of guns.

So, again, the good news is that a relatively wide public seems open to learning more about firearms and the American gun culture, and the laws, statistics, and organizational players that define the debate.

So what’s the bad news? The bad news is that a relatively small percentage of Americans refuse to even consider any further tightening of existing gun regulations; and furthermore, this minority, which is disproportionately loud, and empowered by its partnership with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its disproportionate (again) lobbying clout, engages in arguments that distort the rationale, goals, and content of the various, new proposals under consideration.

This distortion matters a great deal because there is in fact a very reasonable “middle path” to improving the reach and effectiveness of gun laws while maintaining the rights of citizens to procure and use guns. If ordinary citizens can see through these distortions, and support their congressmen who will have to buck the lobbying efforts of the NRA in order to vote for reasonable gun control, then it is likely that the country can improve on our existing firearms regulations, just as we will try to address the performance of the mental health system, the media, the schools, and our online culture.

It should be noted that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible with their firearms, and are supportive of some of the new regulatory proposals.

Most of the new legislation — both at federal and state levels — contains a number of measured, “middle path” provisions. For example, according to a 1997 Institute of Justice study, roughly 30 to 40 percent of guns are procured without any background check of the buyer. This is widely viewed by many — including gun owners — as a bad situation that can allow guns into the hands of criminals or mentally ill people. The new proposals would require a universal background check.

And if we pair that check with better reporting by the states to the national background check database, then we’ll weed out many more people who are prohibited from having guns.

The gun lobby opposes these steps, mostly by disputing the number of guns sold without background checks, and by claiming that we don’t know how to report potentially dangerous, ill people.

The gun lobby doesn’t want you to know that probably 500,000 to a million guns are sold annually on the private, “off-books” secondary market, without background checks. I say “probably” because the gun lobby, allied with gun manufacturers, has worked hard for years to prevent legislation which would authorize the government to conduct research into the gun industry — which has meant that observers have to piece together the statistics from what data exists. (Keep in mind that in 2011 the FBI conducted more than 16 million background checks — not all of which resulted in a gun sale — and you start to have a feel for the order of magnitude of this activity.)

And regarding the reporting of potentially dangerous people, 27 states already do have policies enabling or requiring the submission of such information to the federal database, having figured out how to do this with appropriate safeguards.

Lastly, although there must be somebody somewhere who has submitted legislation to repeal the 2nd Amendment, such a proposal is unrealistic in the extreme, and serves only as a distraction. All of the serious and reasonable proposals — including those of President Obama and Senator Feinstein — maintain gun ownership rights.

Although the gun lobby thinks in uncompromising terms, we’ve got to remember that addressing the many varied factors behind gun violence will involve making incremental adjustments to the policies, circumstances, and realities involved. And it doesn’t make the new proposals unworthy to acknowledge that they won’t prevent all gun violence.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at