It’s an issue that has seen little action by the White House in a long time, mostly because of the supreme influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) over almost all Republican members of Congress, as well as a fair number of Democratic Congresspeople.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14 has changed that: President Obama has charged Vice President Joe Biden with the task of developing specific proposals for stemming gun violence. A group led by Biden has been working hard to talk to all interested parties and come up with measures backed by key law enforcement leaders.
From The Washington Post:
Vice President Biden said Thursday he sees an emerging consensus around “universal background checks” for all gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines as he completes the Obama administration’s broad study of ways to curb the nation’s gun violence.
But the National Rifle Association, a participant in an afternoon meeting with Biden, strongly rejected what it called “an agenda to attack the Second Amendment” and indicated it would have nothing more to do with the vice president’s task force on gun laws.
Well, no surprises there.
Biden has announced that he will present President Obama with a package of recommendations by Tuesday, January 15. What will the VP include in his proposals? Here’s an inside look at the five issues most likely to be up for debate.
1. Assault Weapons
The most high-profile issue on the gun issue is the question of whether of reinstate a ban on assault weapons, which was initially passed in 1994, but was allowed to expire in 2004.
If you are 21 or older, it is legal to acquire a handgun from a dealer federally licensed to sell firearms. At age 18, you can buy a rifle or a shotgun from such a dealer. In most states, you must be 21 to buy an assault weapon. However, the law varies widely from state to state, which is why a federal law is necessary.
When Adam Lanza (age 20) blasted into Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was carrying a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle and several high-capacity magazines. Although it is unclear where the AR-15 used by Lanza (and registered to his mother) was purchased, Walmart shoppers are very familiar with it, since it’s on sale at about 1,700 Walmart stores nationwide.
In fact, Walmart is the biggest seller of firearms and ammunition in America.
Here’s one anecdotal story of how easy it was to buy an assault weapon in Westchester, NY:
I said, “Fine, ring me up” and handed over my driver’s license so the salesperson could make a copy. Then I sat down in front of a computer, and filled out a form, answering a few basic questions: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Do you have a substance abuse problem? About two minutes later the salesperson said, “You’re good to go.” and handed me an AR-15. It cost about $900 and it took less than five minutes. (The Daily News)
Surely Biden will suggest reinstating the ban on these weapons, whose only purpose is to murder.
2. Limits On High-Capacity Ammunition Magazines
Along with assault weapons come high-capacity ammunition magazines, another item likely to be high on Biden’s list.
It is ridiculously easy to get a hold of these. Magazines are currently available with capacities of 100 and more, and high-capacity magazines have been used in every recent mass shooting.
Proponents of the ban say high-capacity magazines play a prominent role in mass shootings, and restricting access to them will eliminate the power of killers to slaughter as Lanza did at Sandy Hook. According to them, mass shooters usually acquire their weapons legally, so limiting access to such magazines would prevent such tragedies in the future.
Democratic Representatives Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado have already reintroduced legislation to ban the sale or transfer of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Will Biden take a lesson from Australia, where, after the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in 1996, governments across Australia resolved for all jurisdictions to introduce laws to restrict the sale of ammunition to licensed gun owners and to place limits on the quantity of ammunition that could be purchased in a given period?
I hope so.
3. Universal Background Checks For Gun Buyers
The Washington Post reports that the White House is likely to push for universal background checks for gun buyers. Proponents suggest that although this is not a cure-all, it is probably the gun-control policy most likely to make a difference.
Background checks began in the 1990s.
Under current law, licensed firearms dealers are required to run instant background checks on all buyers. But once an individual person owns a gun, he doesn’t have to do this when he sells it. So the police can trace a crime gun to its original buyer — dealers are required to keep sales records for 20 years — but if that person says he sold it to a stranger through a classified ad, the trail goes dead.
Universal background checks would help to hold people accountable for giving guns to criminals. When the police traced a gun to the original buyer, that person could no longer simply say he didn’t have it anymore, or he could be accused of making an illegal transaction.
Another issue is that there is incomplete data in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is intended to prevent those ineligible, including felons and people who have been committed to a mental institution, from acquiring firearms. However, only 12 states regularly provide data to NICS, with another 28 doing so occasionally.
Almost everyone (except the National Rifle Association, of course) agrees on the importance of universal background checks, which are likely to be near the top of Biden’s list.
4. Mental Health Reporting
Keeping track of those who should not own a firearm owing to their mental state is challenging. President Obama has stated that he will not simply seek new restrictions on guns and ammunition, but also that he will also look for proposals to address concerns about mental health reporting.
As noted above, NICS data is woefully incomplete. It’s also true that the nine most recent mass shootings were carried out by assailants with mental health issues, but they had not actually been committed to an institution. So there are two issues: one is to make sure that NCIS is a useful and complete database; the second one is to broaden the scope of those classified as having mental health issues.
Since 1968, federal law has prohibited the sale of guns to anyone declared mentally unfit. But first, a court has to decide someone is unfit—a very high standard.
In addition, a mentally ill person who has been banned from buying a weapon can circumvent the system by using an unlicensed dealer at a gun show, in his neighborhood or through classified ads, because no background check is required for such transactions.
5. Impact Of Violent Images In American Culture
Just how to measure this impact is a controversial issue, but Biden is taking it seriously and on Friday Biden consulted with some leaders in the video game industry.
From Huffington Post:
Mark Fisher, the interim president of the Electronic Merchants Association, a Silicon Valley trade group, dismissed the idea that video games contribute to violent behavior and questioned whether anything could be done to regulate violent video games anyway.
Fisher noted that video games already carry voluntary age advisories in the form of ratings including “Mature” (M), which suggests that the games are “suitable for person age 17 and over,” and “Adult Only,” which signifies that the games have content that “should only be played by person 18 or over.” And he cited a recent Federal Trade Commission report asserting that video game retailers enforce the ratings “most vigorously.”
This will be a tricky one to resolve: there are many varying opinions of the influence of violent games on children, and in any case, the Supreme Court in 2011 struck down California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, determining that
violent video game restrictions violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Let’s hope the country is finally ready to make some changes on this crucial issue.
Photo Credit: Fear And Loading