10 Questions: What About Gun Control?

Almost invariably, America can't suffer a gun tragedy--like this week's massacre at Virginia Tech--without a gun debate immediately following it. The basic question is this: Should government impose restrictions on what kind of guns can be sold, and to whom? Would those restrictions make us any safer?

For one side's perspective on this issue, we turned to Paul Helmke, a Republican who is the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a pro-gun control group.
1.Mr. Helmke, it almost seems too early to discuss a policy response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. And yet, people are already lining up behind various ideas including more gun control-which your group obviously supports. Are there any measures that could have been taken to prevent this tragedy?

We'll never know for sure if this horrific shooting could have been prevented, but it seems quite clear that what we're doing now is not working and that this individual should not have been allowed to get his guns and ammunition so easily. It's still unclear whether his mental health history legally disqualified him from purchasing weapons. If so, this information apparently didn't get to the state and federal authorities who should have disapproved these sales. In approving gun sales, the focus should be on completeness, not quickness. If his documented history wasn't a disqualifier, it should have been. Requiring references could have made it obvious that guns shouldn't be sold to this person. A stronger, more extensive system of real background checks might have made a difference. In addition, ballistics microstamping technology might have allowed the police to determine more quickly after the first two killings who the shooter was.

2.What do you say to those who argue that Virginia Tech had already implemented several gun safety measures on campus-banning guns in classrooms and dorms-that apparently did nothing to help?

Partial restrictions by a university or a city are going to be of limited effectiveness when an individual can go off-campus or out of the city or to the next state and easily acquire these weapons – in this case, not once but twice. We need effective, enforceable, national, common-sense restrictions to prevent such easy, quick access to so much deadly firepower.

3. A leading Virginia gun rights group said that if one of the victims were carrying a concealed weapon, this massacre might have been averted. What's wrong with that argument?

It's natural to ask "what if" and think that maybe some Gary Cooper/John Wayne hero might have been able to react quickly enough to limit the amount of death and injury after the shooter burst into the classrooms and started firing numerous rounds from a high-capacity clip in just seconds. As a former mayor, however, I know that being able to react quickly and effectively without becoming one of the first targets of the shooter is difficult even for trained police officers. Studies show that adding more guns to a home, a community, state, or country leads to more deaths and violence, not less.

4. Are you disappointed by the dearth of national politicians calling for more gun control as a response to this?

There are many strong leaders on this issue at the national, state, and local level, and there will be more in the days ahead, but most politicians are extremely risk-averse. We need leaders to step forward to address the question of what we need to do to reduce gun violence. The public needs to ask elected officials and candidates: "What are you going to do about it?" Other countries have figured out ways to reduce gun violence. This is not an insolvable problem.

5. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats are now averse to gun control because it cost Al Gore three states-Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas-any one of which would have made him president. Why should Democrats risk political defeat to argue for gun control?

Supporting common-sense measures to restrict the easy availability to guns, like we saw here, and make our communities safer should be a political winner, not loser, in 2008. I know of no candidate, at any level, who was hurt by taking such a stand in the 2006 elections. Thirty-two people die from gun homicides every day in this country. What we're doing now is not working. In 2000, George Bush supported the federal assault weapons ban, trigger locks, and "smart gun" technology in order to attract votes from the center. If Al Gore had been declared the winner in Florida, or done any number of things differently in 2000, no one would be talking about gun politics this way.

6. You are a Republican. Why do you think formerly pro-gun control members of your party, like Rudy Giuliani, are now backing away from that position?

The Republican party that I grew up with in Fort Wayne, Indiana solidly supported "law and order" measures to keep our communities safer. Republicans like Nixon, Ford, and Reagan were supporters of strong sensible gun laws. Because those who believe in almost any gun, any time, anywhere, for anybody have become so vocal, so unwilling to look for areas of compromise, and so tied into G.O.P. primary politics, too many Republican politicians have been trying to disavow their common sense positions from the past.

7. President Bush says he supports an assault weapons ban-which the Republicans in Congress let expire. Groups like yours criticized the White House for not doing much to help re-authorize it. First of all, how do you define an assault weapon (as opposed to the semi-automatic that was apparently used at Virginia Tech)? And what have been the consequences of not renewing the ban?

The term "assault weapon" was coined by gun companies, who used it in the 1980's to market their product. It means a weapon designed for use by soldiers in war to kill large numbers of people in a crowded setting as rapidly as possible: a weapon with features like high-capacity ammunition magazines, grenade launchers, flash suppressors that cloak the location of the shooter, and barrel shrouds to prevent the shooter from getting his hands burned after prolonged, rapid fire.

The federal assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in September 2004 included a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, like the one that the Virginia Tech killer had for his Glock semiautomatic pistol. What a high-capacity clip does is allow you to fire more shots without reloading. Before the ban expired, new clips holding more than 10 rounds were banned from sale. Because the ban expired, this killer was able to buy larger clips. He was thus able to fire more bullets without reloading.

8. Isn't it true that people kill people-as the cliché goes-and that a criminal will always find a way to get a gun?

While it is "people who kill people," they do so more often, and more successfully because we make it so easy to get such lethal weapons. Gun violence statistics show that if you tighten access to firearms, you get fewer gun deaths and injuries. Making it harder for dangerous people and criminals to get guns make it less likely that they will get them. These guns come from somewhere – they don't grow on trees in the "bad" parts of town. Stopping "straw purchases" of guns from dealers, limiting the number of guns that dealers can sell at one time, requiring complete background checks on all gun sales, and strengthening law enforcement's ability to combat illegal trafficking guns and corrupt dealers could significantly reduce the supply of guns available to criminals.

9. If tragedies like Columbine and Virginia Tech won't cause gun control legislation to pass, will anything?

We will take action to slow our nation's gun violence. It is inevitable. The only question is how long it will take – how many more will die or be injured before we do something about it. There are many of us dedicated to fighting for common sense gun laws. For the sake of the families of gun violence victims in America and all of us who help pay the costs and suffer the consequences of the decline in public safety and security, I desperately hope we take action sooner rather than later. I don't think America wants to declare defeat on this issue.

10. You went to Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Do you think Senator Clinton would take action on this issue if she is elected president?

President Bill Clinton showed that federal policies promoting more police and less guns helped reduce violent crime. He's pointed out that recent federal policies leading to less police and more guns has led to a rise in violence. Senator Hillary Clinton has always supported sensible gun laws which help prevent violence and fight crime while allowing legitimate uses of guns for sporting purposes, collecting, and self-defense. Most of the Presidential candidates have shown some level of support for sensible gun restrictions in the past. What we need is a leader who can help start a national dialogue on this issue and bridge the gap that divides Americans on this issue as well as others.