The U.S. Supreme Court's Second Amendment decision last term, with its historic affirmation of an individual right to keep and bear arms, is being read as a harbinger of doom by gun-control advocates, and as cause for celebration by the National Rifle Association and its allies. In fact, it could play out exactly the other way around. District of Columbia v. Heller may finally open the door to sensible gun policy in the United States, and it could be the beginning of the end for the NRA, at least as we know it today.
Let's face facts. Even before the Court's decision, with something like 40 percent of U.S. households owning some 200 million firearms, nearly three-quarters of Americans believing the Constitution guarantees the right to own a gun, and -- like it or not -- a strong historical gun culture, America's guns were not going away. The strongest gun-control agenda -- get rid of them -- has always, as a political matter, been a fantasy. That has not stopped what is in fact a minority political element from militating for outright bans. And that, in turn, let what is in fact a fringe element of the pro-gun community paint even the most moderate and common-sense gun-control steps as fights to the death in the U.S. culture war over firearms. Waiting periods? Trigger locks? All just a prelude to granola-eating pacifists seizing your grandfather's deer hunting rifle ... while the fundraising machinery spun ever faster.
Well, that's over now. For the first time in history, America's guns are officially safe. And while I've no position on Justice Antonin Scalia's historical scholarship or jurisprudence, I'm confident that his opinion is a work of genius as a political compromise. Gun grabbing, by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, is now officially off the table. Little, if anything, else is.
And guess what? Gun owners turn out to be pretty reasonable people. In a recent poll conducted for the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, 59 percent of gun owners said reducing gun violence was "very important"; 83 percent of gun owners favored background checks of all buyers at gun shows; and 88 percent of gun owners favored mandatory reporting of stolen guns. Crucially, even NRA supporters have said they do not support the NRA's extremist positions.
This is not exactly a lunatic fringe.
Ordinary people with guns have never been the problem in the United States: In this, the NRA and other gun advocates have always been right. Recent findings produced as part of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence by my colleague Robin Engle at the University of Cincinnati, illustrate what is an overwhelming consensus in the research literature: On balance, people involved in gun crime are far from ordinary. In Cincinnati, about 60 violent groups -- gangs, drug crews and the like -- with around 1,100 total members, or less than 0.3 percent of the city's population, are associated with about three-quarters of the homicides in the city. Virtually none of them acquired and possessed their guns legally. Existing laws forbidding selling guns to, and gun possession by, felons, juveniles, addicts, the mentally ill and those convicted of domestic violence actually do a pretty good job of covering core violence issues.
COMMON-SENSE STEPS TO TAKE
What we've needed, for a long time, is common-sense steps to prevent the illegal trafficking and diversion of guns to people everybody agrees shouldn't have them. Here's where the fringe gun-grabbing arguments -- on both sides -- have made common sense impossible. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is forbidden by law from computerizing its firearms records, on the argument that they could become a de facto registration system, which could then be used to inform gun confiscation. The famed "gun show loophole" is a myth. The reality is far worse: Federal gun law only applies to "dealers," who become dealers by voluntarily announcing themselves to ATF. Everybody else can legally sell guns without any of the federal requirements, at gun shows or anywhere else. Amendments filed by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., with NRA backing, forbade ATF from publishing reports on crime-gun traces that indicated local and national patterns of trafficking and diversion, and prevented police departments from sharing this information. Jersey City, N.J., was refused data from crime guns it had submitted itself to ATF for tracing. (No, I'm not making this up.)
It would be very simple to make a huge difference here. Let ATF do its job. Eliminate the unregulated "secondary" market. Mandate that stolen guns be reported to the police. Register handguns, the most important component of gun violence. Mandate criminal background checks for gun-store employees. Reinstitute the national crime-gun tracing program the Bush administration shut down. Make penalties for trafficking guns commensurate with, at least, those for trafficking drugs. These are simple, common-ground steps that would really matter. We've been distracted from such common-sense moves by the far more dramatic culture war over guns. But that, as of last term, is over and done with.
Thank you, Antonin. Thank you.
David M. Kennedy is director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
Guess this dude doesn't keep up with the Presidential candidates.