10 Questions: Opposing Gun Control

Last week's killings at Virginia Tech are still on all of our minds—and it may be too soon to talk about a public policy response. But the fact is, national activists and politicians already are. For last week's "10 Questions," just days after the VT assault, we spoke with a leading proponent of gun control.
This week, we hear from the other side of the debate. We posed some questions to Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, a longtime NRA board member and gun control opponent. We talked with him about assault weapons, background checks, and the Second Amendment.

1. Senator Craig, do you want any changes in America's gun laws?

In the past, I supported a proposal with Senators McCain, Schumer, and others to improve the National Instant Check System (NICS), which helps enforce current gun laws. Part of the bill addresses the lack of mental health data in NICS. Federal firearms law does not permit individuals with mental disabilities to purchase firearms, and NICS should be able to stop those sales. While privacy concerns have made it difficult to populate the database with accurate information, this bill takes steps to close that information gap while respecting those concerns.

2. You've served on the board of the NRA since 1982 and have talked tough about Democrats wanting to take away people's guns. Were you surprised that the leaders of the new Democratic Congress didn't speak out for more gun control last week?

Not one bit. A lot of anti-gun advocates have lost their Congressional seats because of their support for more gun control. That fact was not lost on either party in the last election. Democrats realize that gun control is a losing issue with much of the electorate, particularly with the union and blue collar workers they claim as their political base. They even went so far as to recruit pro-gun candidates who are now part of their caucuses in the House and Senate and resistant to flip-flopping on this issue.

3. We now know that in 2005 a special justice declared Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, mentally ill and a danger to himself—but that that information never made its way into his background check. Should it have been there?

As I stated earlier, the National Instant Check System (NICS) has serious gaps in records that would catch individuals disqualified for mental health reasons from owning firearms. Those disqualifications are a matter of federal law, and all of us want the current gun laws enforced. A workable, comprehensive NICS system can achieve that without infringing on the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.

4. Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat and strong NRA ally who served with you on its board, is currently negotiating for a bill that would strengthen the background check system to include mental health records. You've said you're unsure whether you'd support it. What are your reservations, and can they be overcome?

Assuming the bill is similar to the NICS bill I have supported in the past and mentioned earlier, I expect to support it again if I can be assured that it will stay clean of extraneous gun control amendments – but in the U.S. Congress, that is a big "if." We should all be able to agree on a strong instant background check system, but we cannot all agree on more gun control. Providing a legislative vehicle for gun control proposals will only ensure it doesn't pass, which would be detrimental to public safety.

5. According to the New Yorker, "on a recent list of the fourteen worst mass shootings in Western democracies since the nineteen-sixties the United States claimed seven." How can we conclude that that level of violence is related to anything but our comparatively relaxed gun laws?

Not even the New Yorker piece jumps to that conclusion. Maybe the writer was aware of thought-provoking facts about violence – such as the statistic that even non-gun homicide rates in this country are higher than those of other Western democracies (consider Timothy McVeigh's mass killing of 168 people in Oklahoma City using a fertilizer bomb), or conversely the fact that Western democracies include countries with high gun ownership rates and few firearm restrictions, but less gun-related crime than the United States. It's also worth pondering that while there are some 200 million privately owned firearms in America, and the number is increasing on the order of 4.5 million per year, U.S. violent crime rates have declined 38 percent since 1991, to a 30-year low. The point is that among the societal factors that drive violence, the prevalence of guns or restrictiveness of gun laws are lousy predictors of violence levels – certainly they pale in comparison to such things as historic cultural values and domestic policies and pressures.

6. What does the phrase "well-regulated militia" from the Second Amendment mean to you?

A "well-regulated militia" envisioned arms in the hands of American citizens, not the government, to defend themselves. To quote James Madison from his Federalist Papers, the Constitution preserves "the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation. . . (where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms."

7. You opposed the assault weapons ban--and so did the NRA. Why do Americans need automatic or semi-automatic weapons (one of Cho's guns was semi-automatic) in order to hunt or protect their families?

Too bad former President Theodore Roosevelt isn't around today to explain why he chose a semiautomatic rifle for hunting. But the Second Amendment is about more than hunting; it is about protecting the liberties we all enjoy. When the government starts dictating legality of firearms based on superficial characteristics, as the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban did, it is a slippery slope to banning all firearms. The truth of the matter is that gun bans do nothing to protect the safety of Americans and may actually interfere with the ability of citizens to protect themselves from criminals.

8. Is there compelling research that suggests anything but a direct relationship between tough gun laws and less gun crime?

Yes. The fact is that the areas of our country with the highest crime rates also have the strictest gun control laws, and, conversely, the areas with the lowest crime rates have the most access to firearms for law-abiding citizens. While Virginia has relatively pro-gun laws, firearms were, and continue to be, banned from the Virginia Tech campus.
Blaming crime rates on guns is diverting attention from the real reasons for crime. We need to focus on those and focus on law enforcement in order to cut crime, not strip Americans of their liberties.

9. We train and license people to drive cars--and nobody takes a licensed person's car away unless there is a lawful reason to do so. Why not require training and licensing for people to own guns? Wouldn't that--along with a stronger background check--make sure that deadly weapons aren't getting into the wrong hands?

Driving a car is a privilege; owning a firearm is a right guaranteed by our Constitution. That is a major difference, and history has shown us in other countries that licensing is the first step toward confiscation. I encourage both gun users and non-users to attend firearm safety classes, from a young age, because it helps improve gun safety overall. However, tyrannical governments could easily manipulate safety class requirements to establish de facto bans on firearms. We don't tolerate literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting because historically such tests were abused to restrict the voting rights of targeted Americans; likewise, the civil liberty to keep and bear arms should not be conditioned on requirements dictated by the government.

10. Are there any examples of guns being taken away from law-abiding citizens in this country? Has that ever happened in any sort of systematic way?

Yes – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when residents of New Orleans needed self-protection the most, police were ordered to confiscate firearms from law-abiding citizens.