Many say the current presidential race is the most uncivilized in modern American history. Civility in public discourse, why it seems to have hit a new low and long-term implications for the democratic process.
The horror and outrage in the aftermath of last week’s mass shootings in Connecticut are galvanizing new efforts to ban assault weapons. Diane and her guests discuss Americans and gun control.
- Congressman John Yarmuth U.S. Representative from Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District.
- Adam Winkler law professor at the UCLA and author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America."
- James Fallows national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine.
- Laura Meckler White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. An assault weapons ban that was signed into law in 1994 expired eight years ago. Gun control advocates say if that ban had been in place, it might have prevented the massacre in Connecticut last week. Some political leaders, including President Obama, support reinstating it.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about new efforts at gun control, James Fallows, nation correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and Laura Meckler, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Joining us from Los Angeles, Adam Winkler, law professor at UCLA and author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. JAMES FALLOWSGood morning, Diane.
MS. LAURA MECKLERGood morning, Diane.
PROF. ADAM WINKLERGood morning.
REHMJames Fallows, is this tragedy different? Will it shift thinking and even action on gun control?
FALLOWSI think it has the potential to be different. And we say different, what we mean is think of the previous three times just during President Obama's term of office where he's appeared as national mourner in chief after a huge gun slaughter, you know, with Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin and Aurora, of course, with the movie theater shooting. And I thought very strongly after each one of those, there was a kind of horrible ritual to them. We would all mourn. The flags would go to half-staff.
FALLOWSThere'd be stories on what went wrong with the young man who'd done the killing, about all the families, what could've been different, et cetera, et cetera. This time, I thought these circumstances of the killing itself were so hideous and so recognizable by everybody as being hideous. And the president's tone was different, where he wasn't just elegiac and mournful, not just saying, this is horrible, but saying, we cannot let this go on.
FALLOWSThis cannot continue. And as a re-elected president, he has a different kind of possibility. So I thought that just as Australian politics was changed by the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, as British politics on gun control was changed by the Dunblane shooting at the same time, it's possible this will be one of those turning points.
REHMAdam Winkler, there are calls in Congress from gun right supporters for reform. What are they saying, and is this surprising to you?
WINKLERWell, yes. I mean, one of the things that we've seen after past incidents is that gun right supporters just clamp up, or if they are going to say anything, they just say, well, if more people had guns, this wouldn't have happened, or the death toll would've been reduced. However, we're seeing a different tune being played in Congress so far. We know that pro-gun Democrats like Mark Warner from Virginia, who's got an A rating from the NRA, came out and said, you know what, enough is enough. This is a game changer.
WINKLERWe need to start a serious discussion about gun control laws and maybe even move towards limiting weapons like assault weapons. I think it's very possible that we're going to see a change here. One of the things to add to what Mr. Fallows said is that the NRA suffered through a pretty bad November where their preferred candidates, the ones they endorsed, lost, by and large, almost everyone as a result -- everyone in closely contested races.
WINKLERAs a result, I think people are -- in Washington are starting to see maybe the NRA isn't the political powerhouse that we should be so afraid to take on that we've perceived it to be over the last 20 years.
REHMAnd, Laura Meckler, what about President Obama? How much force do you think is there behind his words?
MECKLERWell, I think that is a very big question and an open question frankly 'cause although -- James is right that after these previous tragedies, the tone from Obama was a little bit different. He also, in the aftermath of those tragedies, did talk about the need for action in vague terms, which is really all we've heard so far from him, is vague terms. Now, if you listen to -- now, it is different. I don't want to say it's not different.
MECKLERI would contrast two particular speeches, one he gave to the Urban League in New Orleans in the aftermath of the Colorado shootings. And in that speech, he talked about the fact that it was a tragedy and that AK-47s don't belong on the streets and that we need to do something about this. And then when myself and others asked the White House, well, what does this mean? Is he going to be promoting getting behind gun control? It was like, no, no, no. He's not doing anything.
MECKLERThe only thing he specifically said he would do is commence a national dialogue, which, as far as I can tell, never happened. So now let's look at what he said on Sunday night. Sunday night was a much more high-profile speech. That was, you know, nationally broadcast, seen by millions and millions of Americans. And he spoke of the nation's failure to address -- to keep children safe. He said, that's our -- our duty is to keep children safe.
MECKLERAnd if -- he said, I've been reflecting on this, and we, as a nation, have failed. And I wondered if he was thinking of himself as well. Obviously, I don't know what was in his head. But he and then said, we need action. Then in the most, sort of, quoted part of the speech, he said, I'm going to use all the powers of this office, and you're sort of like, to? To convene people to talk about the problem.
REHMHe never mentioned the word gun.
MECKLERIs that right? I -- that's very interesting. And so...
REHMNever mentioned it.
MECKLERBut having said all that, even though I do think -- so it has been vague. Having said that, I haven't told by people at the White House that there is going to be some sort of policy prescription. I think he has set this up to the point where he has to do something. I think he wants to do something. I think the fact that he does not face re-election is an important point. And it does seem because of what's happening in Congress that the mood is shifting a little bit.
FALLOWSYes, a couple of points to make. One, it's true he didn't use the word gun in that speech. But as somebody wrote in a column, that was clearly about guns, just as Lincoln did not use the word slavery in the Gettysburg Address, but you knew what he was talking about. So, too, I think that the subject of Obama's speech was impressive.
FALLOWSIn addition to what Laura was saying about the change in tone, I was struck by his saying, if there is even one thing we could do that would reduce this threat, that would be significant, because one of the traditional responses made is, in a country with 300 million guns, there's no way you're ever going to get rid of them altogether. And essentially, why try?
FALLOWSAnd so his argument was, if there's one thing to do -- and people have lots of one things to suggest, whether it's magazine size limits, capacity or certain kinds of background checks or the gun show loophole so-called, et cetera. So that was striking to me.
REHMAnd, Adam Winkler, you had Sen. Manchin of West Virginia, one of the lawmakers calling for change, calling on the NRA to cooperate with gun law reform. What was your reaction to that call?
WINKLERWell, it's absolutely essential that we bring the gun right supporters like the NRA into the debate over devising good and effective gun control laws. Part of the thing that I discovered when I was researching my book "Gunfight" was that when I looked back at the history of gun control laws, too often, gun control laws were drafted by gun opponents without having enough influence from the gun rights people. And as a result, people who were drafting the laws often who didn't really know that much about guns. And so the laws were riddled with loopholes or were predictably ineffective.
WINKLERSo I think it's important to have the gun rights community involved in the debate. And I think it's time for the leaders of the NRA who've long been divorced from the average gun owner in terms of their extremist views of the Second Amendment to come on board and to recognize that there are things that we can do to see that criminals and the mentally ill have a tougher time getting their hands on guns.
REHMMayor Bloomberg of New York has been very outspoken, James.
FALLOWSYes, he certainly has. And I think there's been an interesting sort of coalition of not the usual suspects who've been saying we need a different approach. Mayor Bloomberg certainly -- Rupert Murdoch in his tweets has been saying that it's time to get past this insanity. And I agree with what Adam was saying about the essential step of including the NRA and the majority of reasonable gun owners in the United States because if this is presented as a sort of all-or-nothing culture war, we sort of maximize the opposition.
FALLOWSIf people like Sen. Manchin, who is so avid a gun person that his famous 2010 campaign ad was him shooting with his rifle at the cap and trade bill and Obamacare provisions and all the rest, if people like him say that it's time to find ways to protect the rights of hunters and people who feel they have legitimate concerns about having handguns -- my father always carried a handgun with him as a physician because of nighttime phone calls. He thought it was a way to protect himself, protecting those interests from -- while also just removing the excesses. I think that's the way to go.
REHMAnd, Adam, from 1994 to 2004, the country had an assault weapons ban. How effective was it?
WINKLERWell, there's not very good data on it. We know that the assault weapon's ban was instituted just as crime rates began to drop precipitously. Although no social science researcher that I know of associates that with the assault weapons ban. The truth is that the weapons ban under the assault weapons law are not the kinds of weapons that ordinary criminals use. Apparently they are favored by mass shooters because they can do so much damage so quickly.
WINKLERBut ordinary criminals and people who commit suicide, which make up 80 gun fatalities every single day, those two in combination, those laws -- those deaths are really as a result mostly of handguns, not as a results of assault weapons. And the assault weapons law that was passed in 1994 was an example of one of those laws that was predictably ineffective.
WINKLERIt had -- it barred certain kinds of rifles that were not even as lethal as other kinds of rifles that were allowed and focused on -- too much on superficial characteristics -- the way a weapon looked and what kinds of features it had, like a bayonet lug, which last I checked, there weren't a lot of bayoneting incidents. So we do need to have laws that are more effective and well drafted than the '94 assault weapons law was.
REHMSo could an assault weapons ban have prevented the Connecticut massacre in your opinion, Adam?
WINKLERWell, it's hard to say. It's apparent from the reports that we've seen so far an assault weapon was used to do all this damage. You know, the truth of the matter is I think we make a mistake by focusing too much on mass shootings. Obviously, it's a horrible tragedy and one that deserves our grieving and mourning and our respect.
WINKLERAt the same time, since that shooting took place Friday morning, more than 300 people have lost their lives to gun violence on the ordinary daily routine suicides and criminal violence. I think that we can a make a big impact if we focus on reducing that number of incidents.
REHMAll right. Adam Winkler, law professor, UCLA, author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America."
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now is Congressman John Yarmuth. He is a Democrat. He represents Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District. Good morning to you, sir.
REP. JOHN YARMUTHGood morning, Diane.
REHMYou apologized yesterday for being silent on the issue of gun control. Talk about why you were silent.
YARMUTHWell, you know, I'm no favorite of the NRA. I've got an F rating of that. It's one of the only F's I've ever been proud of in my life. But, you know, I think many of us who are concerned about gun violence in this country kind of assumed that nothing was going to happen, and therefore we just stopped talking about the need to take action at -- in many different areas. So I was sitting around over the weekend and agonizing with the rest of the country over what had happened in Connecticut.
YARMUTHI just said, you know, we have an obligation to speak out and keep speaking out because in Kentucky, many of -- many Kentuckians never hear the case for regulations on guns. And so I said, I'm not -- they're not likely to hear it from our senators or probably any of our other members of Congress, so they need to hear it from me.
REHMSo how do you see the NRA influencing your colleagues in Congress?
YARMUTHWell, clearly there are two ways. One is this -- what I call an illusory -- their illusory political power. They -- I think they're like "The Wizard of Oz." They really don't affect elections very much. But they can get people stirred up occasionally, and it frightens politicians. The other way they affect politicians, of course, is with political donations. And I think the number is something like $9 million that they spent this year trying to defeat President Obama. And, of course, that money was not effective.
YARMUTHSo I think there is a perception in the country that you just can't take on the NRA when, in fact, they really don't influence many elections at all. And that's why I think it's important that people step up, talk about the fact that they're not afraid to essentially to take on the NRA and to make the case against the things that they talk about.
REHMWhat would meaningful gun control reform look like to you?
YARMUTHWell, I think the elements are pretty clear: to eliminate the loopholes, the gun show loophole, the areas of -- in which guns are sold without background checks -- that's a critical element -- eliminating high-capacity magazines, reinstituting the assault weapons ban, and there may be other things as well. But, you know, even though none of them may have prevented the Newtown tragedy, they make a statement.
YARMUTHAnd they make a statement that assault weapons really are not appropriate in society. And so if they prevent a few crazy people from getting their hands on them, that's good. But we need to make a statement that, again, that the policy of this country is the assault weapons don't belong in society.
REHMNumber one, do you think President Obama will push publicly? And, number two, do you think an assault weapons ban can pass the Congress?
YARMUTHWell, number one, I do believe that President Obama is going to push for a pretty broad package of initiatives, and I applaud him for that. Secondly, I would say that, today, an assault weapons ban could pass the Congress. Now, whether that's true a month from now or two months from now, that's up to the drumbeat to assure.
YARMUTHAnd that's why I think it's critical that, and I've emphasized this, teachers and parents, everyone who has interest in this keeps the drumbeat going because the history of all of these things if there's a tragedy, the news cycle ends and then the momentum for action ceases. So we've got to make sure that momentum doesn't stop.
REHMCongressman John Yarmuth, he is a Democrat. He represents Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District. Thanks so much for joining us.
YARMUTHThanks for having me, Diane.
REHMAll right. And, James Fallows, do you think the drumbeat can, will continue?
FALLOWSI think it can, and there are two relevant points that I want to mention. One is Joseph Califano, who, during the Johnson administration was a very, very senior and influential figure, had an editorial in The Washington Post a day or two ago saying that Lyndon Johnson recognized that in getting through the 1968 gun control measures after the raft of political assassinations crescendoing with both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same, same couple of months, Califano was saying that LBJ thought it was important to seize the time when it was there and really act quickly.
FALLOWSAnd so Joseph Califano's recommendation to President Obama was to act now even during this lame duck session to recognize this wouldn't have a long, long shelf life. Second point I would make about the politics of it is on the Atlantic side, I've been writing about this issue and other people have. I received a torrent of mail from police chiefs around the country, essentially talking about this one particular assault weapon issue. The assault weapon term is vague and it kind of covers a lot of things.
FALLOWSBut particularly the AR-15 rifle that was used -- that apparently was used to kill a lot of these little children this last week, that's something -- I once wrote about decades ago how the military designed that. It was the precursor to the M16.
REHMDescribe it for us.
FALLOWSWell, so it's -- it was meant to be a light, resilient, high-capacity killing machine. And it has light bullets precisely because they do more damage when they enter human flesh. They are designed to tumble when they enter a human body and have a very large exit wound when they leave, sort of have this pattern like a funnel almost as they're going through a body.
FALLOWSAnd this was something that was never -- it was intended purely for the military, purely for soldiers out there at the time shooting Vietnamese and whatever else the American military would have to shoot at. And the idea many police chiefs have said that this weapon is a standard thing for Americans to have right in their households is just insane. It's not good for shooting deer. It's not good for shooting a burglar. It's good for killing people in large quantities. And so that seems like a good target, so to speak.
REHMAnd the politics?
FALLOWSWell, the politics of, it seems that the emotions of this moment are such. The statements by Sen. Manchin significantly, Sen. Warner, Congressman Yarmuth, others, saying that we have to take a new look. And the fact that the NRA has not said word one in the now four-plus days since this tragedy is also significant. So I think the politics are to be seized.
REHMAnd, Laura Meckler, do you believe from what you've heard that President Obama will move forward and seize the moment?
MECKLERI think it'll be very difficult for him not to. I think that he's certainly sending all the signals that he does plan to do that. As I said earlier, I feel like he sent those -- has sent the signals in the past and only to disappoint gun control advocates. But this time does feel different. And I do believe that the White House is preparing a package of ideas that they're going to put forth. Of course, then the question becomes, how quickly does he move on it? How much political capital does he put in there?
MECKLERI mean, we're talking about -- there has been a lot of movement. The one place we haven't seen movement is Republican leaders of the House. Legislation has to get through both houses of Congress. So he's at the moment asking the Republicans in the House to do a lot on his agenda, you know, increase taxes, pass immigration reform, now this.
MECKLERYou know, the question is, you know, how much is he going to put behind this? This is not the only thing that he wants to get done. So I don't mean to be overly cynical about it. We'll have to see. It's certainly at this moment, this week, today, it feels like, yes, this is something he wants to take on. But I do think that the jury is out about exactly what that will be and how hard he'll push it.
REHMAdam Winkler, one of the criticisms that the NRA makes, for example, about Washington, D.C. and, of course, Connecticut, is that we have among the strictest gun laws in the country. And that's true of Connecticut. So does it make a difference?
WINKLERWell, we should also recognize that to say that Connecticut has the strictest gun laws in the country is not saying very much because Connecticut doesn't have very strict gun laws. It's very easy in Connecticut for people to get their hands on firearms, as it is in my home state of California, which is also reputed to have the strictest gun laws in the nation. None of our state-level gun laws are anything close to what the gun laws are in any Western industrialized country. So it's really not all that strict. And again, I don't think that we can do very much to prevent mass killings.
WINKLERI think if we eliminated assault weapons, the shooter apparently in Newtown also was carrying two handguns that he could easily reload with previously -- prior reloaded magazines that he could slip into the gun within less than a second. So he could still do a lot of damage. Nonetheless, there are things that we can do, like mandating universal background checks, like improving mental health data reporting to the federal background check system and perhaps even limiting high-capacity magazines and make a difference in America's gun policy.
REHMAnd, Laura, you wanted to add something.
MECKLEROh, well, I just think that he makes a good point in the sense that most of the killing is not in these mass shootings. There's killings every single day in American cities, and the president has made that point, too. So getting at those, I think, is probably a more urgent task, one that the public is not as focused on.
REHMJames, one model of successful gun control comes from Australia. Talk about what's happening there.
FALLOWSYes. That was quite a remarkable situation which is parallel, in some ways, to the United States and different from others. So back in 1996, in the town of Port Arthur in Tasmania -- where actually I was a few months ago, and I saw the site of this Port Arthur massacre -- there was a, you know, deranged young man who killed 35 people in -- even more than our recent shooting in just one spree of gunfire.
FALLOWSAnd the very conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, you know, a very close ally of George W. Bush, supporter of the Iraq War, a very, very right -- sort of a -- almost a Dick Cheney-like figure. There was such a sense of revulsion in the country about this that they passed quite sweeping gun control, gun limitation laws after -- buy-back provision.
FALLOWSCertain kinds of guns were outlawed. And there have been -- there certainly have been killings in Australia since then, but no mass killings of this sort. It's parallel almost to what happened in the U.K. after the Dunblane shooting, which was also in '96. So you find these mass killings in other countries. You don't find them repeatedly the way you do in the United States.
REHMWhat about England, Japan and China?
FALLOWSThey are -- they're only idiosyncratic cases. On the same day as the Newtown shooting, in China there also was an attack on kindergarteners and first-graders. The difference was the attacker had a knife. So 22 children were injured there, but none of them were killed. This is part of a spate of bizarre and horrible knifings of schoolchildren in China over the last year or two, but only a few people have died because it's knives.
FALLOWSJapan has this very long and strange history of guns where essentially they voluntarily gave up the gun after their first encounter with it hundreds of years ago. And then in recent years, there's essentially -- guns are very, very rate, both in China and Japan. It's different from the U.S. We start out with this huge existing stock of weapons and need to cope with that.
REHMAnd, Adam, in Michigan, the governor is going to decide whether to veto a concealed weapons law. What do you make of that?
WINKLERWell, this has been one of the big debates in American politics over the last 30 or 40 years, which is should we allow people to carry guns on the street easily or just allow just about anyone who's a law-abiding citizen to carry guns on the street? It's the next big question that the Supreme Court is going to have to confront, I believe. A 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court just below the Supreme Court, ruled last week that Illinois' complete ban on carrying firearms in public was unconstitutional.
WINKLERAlso, with regards to some of the politics involved here, I think actually the gun control could be one of the first big tests for whether the Republican Party can change. After the Nov. 7 election, we heard so much about whether the Republican Party can continue to appeal to Latinos and other ethnic groups.
WINKLERWell, it turns out that Latinos have the highest support of any racial or ethnic group in America for gun control. This is their major gun control voters. This is a big issue in the Latino communities. And it'll be interesting to see if Republicans in Congress can do more than just talk about immigration reform, but actually begin to change their policies to actually appeal to these new demographics.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Time to open the phones. Let's go first to Tampa, Fla. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNHi. I've been listening to your show for the past few days, and I have to say I really enjoy it.
JOHNBut what I wanted to point out was how the gun control issue came up as a result of this mass shooting, which I found interesting because it was brought in as a broad issue, and everyone started talking about gun control. But now it seems that the talk has moved on to a more appropriate thing, assault weapons, which I like. It's more focused. And I didn't like how people were politically scapegoating guns broadly because of this mass shooting. And I really think that when it's such a important issue, that you need to make sure that you focus on the areas that are relevant.
REHMThat's where we are.
FALLOWSYes. One answer is the reason people are focusing at the moment on guns as opposed to, say, mental illness -- which is, of course, a huge factor in all of these recent shootings -- is that around the world, all societies deal with mental illness. Very few of them deal with our level of gun deaths, gun shooting deaths. So that's sort of the outlier here.
FALLOWSI guess the other point I'd make is that while mass shootings like this are not statistically how most people die from gunfire, they do inevitably focus attention on it, just as the assassinations of the 1960s brought attention to the gun problems of that era. I think they may shift attention to, as the caller says, the specific measures that might make some difference.
MECKLERWell, I think the other point that the caller sort of brings up in my mind is the sort of the culture of guns in America. I mean, this is widespread. The 2008 exit polls found that over 40 percent of voters have guns in their households. I mean, that's a large number -- four out of every 10 households. So we're -- and there's been a lot of talk in the last couple days about Hollywood and video games and sort of the glorification of violence.
MECKLERAnd, you know, there's very little that I can see that can be done about that. The Supreme Court has ruled that you can't outlaw violent video games. The idea that Hollywood is going to decide they're not going to make violent movies anymore seems a little remote to me.
REHMWhich is why, as our caller says, we need to focus on what can be done, and we're here today talking about assault weapons. Let's go to Rockville, Md. Jim, quick point, please.
JIMMs. Rehm, yesterday, you said you wanted a real and realistic discussion on this event and what happened, yet you only seem to be willing to advance the liberal gun control agenda. Yesterday, you had two gun control commentators on your show and no pro-gun rights people. Almost all listener comments that you featured yesterday were from pro-gun control people.
JIMThe only pro-gun rights person that you featured yesterday, you, in fact, labeled as mentally ill. Why have you been unwilling to talk about security in the school? Why have you been unwilling to talk about violence in the media? I know you just mentioned it real quick, but in the '50s, we seemed to keep all this violence out of movies and much earlier. So why are we not willing to talk about that now?
REHMAll right, Jim. And just for your information, tomorrow we will talk about safety in the schools. This is such a huge issue. We're going to have to tackle it piece by piece. I hope you'll stay with us. And we'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk to folks in Rochester, N.Y., Greenville, N.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio.
REHMAnd just to follow up on our last caller's comments, we have, of course, each and every day, we've been talking about the horrific crime in Connecticut. We have reached out to gun support organizations, to the NRA, and no one -- and to members of Congress who support gun rights, not one has been willing to come forth. Let's hear from Steve, who's in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning to you.
STEVEThanks for taking my call, Diane.
STEVEI just wanted to bring up the point you already kind of touched on a little bit. But just the fact that certain cities in our country already have these gun laws, pretty much assault weapons ban on the books: L.A., Chicago, New York, D.C., and those cities have the highest gun-related crimes. So what would be the point in enacting that across the whole country? And on top of that, legislation only works for people who abide by the law.
WINKLERYou know, I think the caller makes a good point about our patchwork gun laws in America. We have 50 states with -- each with their different gun law regimes. The District of Columbia has its own policy. The federal government provides some default rules. The reason why for effective gun control laws we need federal regulation, not state-level regulation, is because it doesn't matter what Connecticut does with regards to assault weapons.
WINKLERIf you can go across the border, buy one -- maybe illegally -- but buy one at a gun show where they don't even check your background and make sure you're not a prohibited purchaser or check where your residency. That's the problem California here has faced for many, many years, that people just run to Nevada or run to Arizona, pick up guns that are illegal to sell in California and bring them back here. The only thing that can work with regards to gun policy is uniform federal laws that impose the same standards on every state.
REHMAll right, to Fishers, Ind. Good morning, Michael. You're on the air.
MICHAELYes. My question is not so much a question as a -- I don't know, just to give you a painting on it, would be the constitutionality of gun control because as in the Heller v. D.C. case, the Supreme Court said you had the right to own a weapon for self-defense not as in, you know, hunting and any other sporting purpose but self-defense, which overthrown the handgun ban in Washington, D.C. And what if you have a right to possess a handgun, which is a particular style of weapon, what would that amount to assault-style weapons?
REHMAll right. Jim Fallows.
FALLOWSYes. So I'll answer the first part of this, I'm going to pass it on to our law professor colleague and, Michael, which is that certainly the trend of Supreme Court rulings over the last decade has been more and more skeptical of any limitations on gun rights and more and more permissive of the kinds of weapons that are allowed, even to the extent where I believe it was Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit said last week -- he was essentially dismissing with a laugh, almost contemptuously, the Illinois restriction on assault weapons.
FALLOWSAnd so I guess this certainly would come to the Supreme Court and the question as we have to ask about the Court, all they say is, who will be on the Supreme Court at that point?
WINKLERWell, that's right. The Supreme Court did say in the Heller case in 2008 that individuals have a right to have a handgun in their home for self-defense, but that decision also made crystal clear that there's plenty of room in the Second Amendment for gun control laws. The Court put in a paragraph saying essentially that nothing in the opinion was designed to call into doubt the majority of America's gun laws.
WINKLERAnd, in fact, there have been 500 federal court decisions on the constitutionality of any kind of gun control law you can imagine since the Heller court decision, and all but a very, very small fraction of those cases have upheld the gun control laws. And assault weapons ban, in particular, would be constitutional because it is not a weapon that's commonly used for self-defense. And that is the standard that the Supreme Court used to invalidate the ban on handguns.
REHMLet's go to Boston, Mass. Good morning, Russ.
RUSSGood morning, Diane. I'm a pro-gun Democrat. I'm pretty liberal. But the more I think about this, I can't think of any laws in the U.S. in any state that would've prevented this from happening. And nothing -- no possible solution that I've heard of deals with the fact that there are 300 million guns in America.
RUSSEven the last assault weapons ban grandfathered in existing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and all it did was they went up in price. In 2001, I could've bought a 30-round magazine. They cost $100 instead of $30, but they were for sale. And I don't think anyone, even the most hardcore anti-gun liberal, supports the idea of police going door to door and seizing assault weapons from law-abiding citizens.
MECKLERWell, I think that the caller makes a good point in that I haven't heard any legislative proposals that would do anything about the guns that are out there. There are ideas for gun buy-back programs where people would sort of voluntarily give them back to the government, but that's not going to get all of the guns off the -- out of there for sure.
MECKLERI mean, gun control advocates would say, you know, when you're in a hole, stop digging. So you -- we should stop further sales of these weapons, but I don't think that's going to stop it. And those guns are out there, and I think the caller does make a point that's worth considering.
FALLOWSIt's worth, however, recognizing that essentially, every other nation that has faced this challenge over the last generation has found some way to improve the gunfire or death problem that they all had. And so you can imagine any given murder case -- oh, the killer could've found this way around it, that way around it, and that is probably true. But the idea, as President Obama said in his speech, if there's anything that can be done that reduces the tide and diminishes these numbers, that's worth considering.
REHMAnd joining us now, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. She is a Democratic congresswoman representing Long Island. Her husband was one of six killed in 1993 on Long Island Railroad. Good morning to you. Thank you for joining us.
REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHYGood morning, Diane, and thanks for having me.
REHMPlease tell us what you felt on hearing the news from Connecticut last week.
MCCARTHYWell, I'll be honest with you. I happen to be home that morning. I was getting ready to go out into my district, and the news started to come on, and it was like, oh, my God, no. And, of course, as the morning went on and the early afternoon went on, it was, you know, more and more information coming out about the young children.
MCCARTHYTo be very honest with you, for speaking as a victim -- and I know I'm speaking for many victims of gun violence, that their heart breaks because they go back to that moment when they got that phone call or the policeman came to the door and said their loved one had been killed. So it's very difficult for victims right now, and it truly is. This has a long -- life-long...
MCCARTHY...effect on someone and these poor parents on what they're going through with the funerals and what that town is going through. But I have to say that, you know, people are there for them now, and I know because I know small towns. They'll be there for them for many months to come to get them through this.
REHMPresident Obama called for meaningful action. What would you consider meaningful action?
MCCARTHYWell, number one, we have to get rid of these large magazine clips that were used. And, by the way, they were used in all these mass killings that we've had over the last several years including on the Long Island Railroad going back in '93. But, you know, I spent my life as a nurse, and I look at things holistically. Yes, we need to get rid of the large magazines. We need to get rid of some of these assault weapons. But we also have to look at the mental health.
MCCARTHYWe have to look at, you know, how do we reach these young people, how do we make sure that those families that have a child that need help can get the help that they need? It's so important. Unfortunately, we have cut spending for mental health. We have cut money for after-school programs and for mental health clinics. And that's a shame. And, you know, we're going to be dealing with the fiscal cliff, you know, in the next several days, and we have to be careful of what we cut.
MCCARTHYI understand we need to cut -- make cuts, and we will, but you got to take it like a fine surgeon and make sure that on what we cut, it's not going to have long-term effects on this nation.
REHMYou introduced the bill last year to ban high-capacity magazines and not a single Republican signed on. Tell us about that.
MCCARTHYWell, after Aurora, I introduced getting rid of the large magazines mainly because that was in the original assault -- the weapons bill going so far back, and I fought with that to get that in there with the -- Senator -- Congressman Schumer at that time and Sen. Feinstein because that's what was used on the Long Island Railroad. And what we've seen on all these killings are the large magazines.
MCCARTHYNow, as far as the Republicans went to, a number of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle said they would like to go on to the bill, but they knew it wouldn't be passed. And, you know, if it came to the floors, some of them said they would vote for it. But that is the problem down here that, you know, they feel that they can't put themselves into the position on might being primaried in the next election.
REHMSo is there political will in Congress to passing assault weapons ban now?
MCCARTHYDiane, I have to tell you, there's a different feeling. And I know it's because we lost so many wonderful children, and we see those photos. This is where the American people can get involve. This is where they can say, enough is enough. We can do our job, but if they keep postponing for us to be able to have a vote on it, then people will forget about it. I'm sorry to say.
MCCARTHYAnd it's going to be up to all of us and the grassroots organizations out there to make sure that people don't forget. It would be a shame if we lost 20 young lives that could be the future of this country, and we don't do something more to protect our young people.
REHMCongressman Carolyn McCarthy, Democratic congresswoman from Long Island. Her husband was one of six killed in 1993 on the Long Island Railroad. Thank you so much for joining us.
MCCARTHYThank you. And thank you for your work.
REHMAnd now to Tulsa, Okla., and to Joe. Good morning. You're on the air.
JOESo I wanted to make a point. I know that a lot of talk has been going on sort of recently that no one ever used these higher-capacity rifles for any sport or any sort of hunting. And here especially in Oklahoma and other states in the South, we have a hog problem going on now. And this has become sort of the trend is they use a higher-capacity, whether it could be Saiga, which is an AK assault rifle, or, like, AR-15.
JOEBecause when you go in to shoot you hogs, you go in with the idea that you're going to actually bust up a herd and shoot a whole bunch of them 'cause you're eradicating pests. And I just wanted to bring that up 'cause…
FALLOWSThere are special circumstances that recall for special situations. I'll use the analogy -- I'm a -- an avid pilot and there are certain aircraft that are allowed in, you know, with certain restricted zones if you can show a need to that. So I can imagine if there were a need for hog eradication to have some kind high-capacity weapon, I can see that. But that's different from having everybody walking through Connecticut or New York or California with an AR-15.
REHMJames Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Greensburg, Pa. Hi, Chris. Chris. Chris, are you there?
CHRISYes, I'm here.
REHMPlease go right ahead.
CHRISWell, there was a question posted earlier about if assault weapons had been banned in Connecticut whether or not this would have been prevented. I don't really believe that it could have been prevented. But it seems to me that the mother had purchased this gun legally, did not seem like the type of person that would have gone out and thought to purchase it illegally. And if she had not purchased that gun, it may not have ended up in the hands of her son.
CHRISHe may still have gone to the school and attempted to -- and killed a lot of people. But ultimately, he would have had to use a handgun. If he -- if the high-volume clips had been not available to him, it would have ultimately slowed the process down. It would have slowed the killing down and given time for these kids to run, to hide, for the police to get there. And I think that ultimately would have prevented some of the deaths that went on. And I think that, in and of itself, is good enough reason to ban these things from our, you know, society.
WINKLERWell, the caller makes a good point that, you know, we can't stop criminals from getting their hands on particular kinds of weapons that are already in circulation. But a lot of people who do damage with guns are law-abiding people, at least law-abiding when they buy the guns. And if we make those more difficult to get in some ways, like an assault weapon, make it more difficult to get, then that person will probably choose to buy some other weapon if they have a need for self-defense.
WINKLERThat is going to be less lethal and less likely to cause some of these problems. I do generally agree that we're not going to stop mass shootings. Crazy mad men will figure out ways to do what they want to do. But 40 people commit suicide every day because they find a gun nearby and find it an effective way to kill themselves. Even if we forced all those people not to use a gun, some would still try to commit suicide. But there's no method of suicide that's nearly as effective as doing so with a gun. So there is a place for gun control and some differences we can make in America's awful death toll from guns.
REHMAll right. And finally, here's an email from James asking, "Can we somehow regulate the production and availability of bullets?" James Fallows.
FALLOWSThis has actually been a long-standing proposal of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, used to say that with you -- if you can't control the guns themselves, at least have some limit on the bullets since those are a consumable. And I think they fit in the larger pattern of what we've been talking about for the past two minutes, in Adam Winkler's latest comment, that you can't have -- you can't eliminate all scenarios that will lead to all deaths. But the more you can make it, the more you can have this sort of break points that probably the greater the number of lives you can save.
REHMAdam Winkler, do you believe that in this current climate, there is the will to do something about these assault weapons?
WINKLERYou know, it's very hard to say. I've seen an outpouring of anger, of desire to help gun control organizations, even just interview requests about these issues like I've never seen before that didn't occur after Aurora nearly this kind of way. So I think that there seems to be a big change happening in America. The politics, the political environment as we've talked about earlier with regards to President Obama and his political calculation is different after the election.
WINKLERAnd I think that if he acts now and acts quickly, he can get something done. If he waits, if he empowers a commission to look at this for six months, nothing will happen in that time. But if he acts quickly, I think that it seems the political environment has become favorable to enacting some kind of new gun control laws.
REHMAdam Winkler, professor of law at UCLA, author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America." James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Laura Meckler, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you all so much.
FALLOWSThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Jill Colgan. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones.
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