Guns Inc.

Congress, the NRA, and the Great Gun Debate


Senate Judiciary Committee member Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) uses images of handguns and rifles during a hearing about gun control on Capitol Hill, Jan. 30, 2013

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Judiciary Committee member Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) uses images of handguns and rifles during a hearing about gun control on Capitol Hill, Jan. 30, 2013

Congress has commenced the Great Gun Control Debate of 2013.

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that—surprise!—he opposes all of the Obama administration’s main proposals: the assault-weapons ban, ammunition-capacity restrictions, and extension of instant background checks to all gun sales. (Currently, only licensed dealers have to do the checks.)

LaPierre’s most revealing moment: Under questioning by committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the gun rights advocate conceded that back in 1999 he endorsed universal background checks. LaPierre explained that the NRA has moved to a more absolutist position because people who fail to pass the background checks are not being prosecuted frequently enough. Hmm. Might make more sense to press for universal checks and more diligent prosecution. That, however, would require compromise with Obama and the Democrats, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the NRA.

Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, a victim of the January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, urgently called for swift legislative action of some sort. Her exhortation had emotional power. Who can resist Giffords’s pluck? She and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who also testified, are gun owners and no enemies of the Second Amendment. Still, one can question Giffords’s implication that any action at all, no matter what the practical effect, is preferable to no action. Empty symbolism breeds cynicism and won’t reduce crime, which, after all, should be the point. Curbing gun ownership as a gesture, divorced from consideration of crime rates, has an unpleasant whiff of disdain for firearm culture.

As a New Yorker, my attention strayed from the theatrics in Washington to a press conference held on Jan. 27 by Ray Kelly, my hometown police commissioner. No fan of military-style semiautomatic rifles (assault weapons), Kelly stressed that the real scourge on the streets of Gotham are cheap handguns. If lawmakers wanted to put a dent in crime, they would focus laser-like on punishing illegal possession of pistols and revolvers, Kelly said.

Check out the tough-as-nails Commish’s column in the New York Post, which has provided consistently helpful coverage on gun issues.

Here are some illuminating stats from the NYPD and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services:

—In 2012, New York City had 418 homicides, 53 percent committed with handguns. (Crime is down in New York, where gun control laws have not changed lately. In 2011 we had 515 homicides, 61 percent perpetrated with handguns.)

—In 2012, 90 percent of the 2,779 guns seized by the NYPD were handguns. Only 77, or 2.8 percent, were assault rifles.

—New York City’s restrictive gun laws make it all but impossible for ordinary civilians to acquire a handgun legally within the five boroughs. States supplying most of New York’s illicit guns are Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida. (Thanks, neighbors!) Laws in all of those supplier states are relatively lax. An estimated 40 percent of guns available in New York are acquired without a background check.

Maybe we should listen to Kelly: Target illegal handguns and conduct background checks on all gun sales in all states. Just a thought from an interested New Yorker.

Barrett, an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, is author, most recently, of GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun.

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