By Michael S. Brown & Dave Kopel. Dr. Brown is an optometrist and board member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws. Mr. Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute.
National Review Online, July 24, 2001 11:10 a.m. More by Kopel on anti-gun groups.
The Democratic Leadership Council sent an important sign about gun politics recently, unveiling a new article "Changing the Gun Debate. " The revealing piece is written by Jonathan Cowan and Jim Kessler, president and policy director, respectively, of Americans for Gun Safety. AGS is the creation of billionaire Andrew McKelvey, who briefly served on the board of Sarah Brady's Handgun Control, Inc., then quit because the organization was making so little progress.
Their message is the need to develop a new perspective on the gun debate if the gun-control lobby and the Democratic party are going to make any further advances. Cowan and Kessler are to be commended for speaking plainly to Democrats about gun control. They point out the futility of trying to influence gun-owning voters by insulting them and acting as if owning a gun makes one a sociopath. This November's elections demonstrated that Rosie O'Donnell-style hate-mongering frightens many more voters than it encourages.
Yet AGS quickly returns to the politics of false demonization. Cowan and Kessler assert that the NRA stands for "no restrictions on the sale, manufacture, or possession of firearms." This is nonsense. It was the NRA that successfully pushed for the National Instant Check System for gun buyers as an alternative to the seven-day waiting period pushed by Handgun Control, Inc. When some NRA Board members objected to the NRA supporting gun control, Wayne LaPierre (chief operating officer of the NRA) and Jim Baker (chief lobbyist) threatened to quit if the NRA backed away from instant background checks.
It is also the NRA, under LaPierre and Baker's tenure, that has successfully pushed for concealed handgun licensing laws, which are now on the books in 33 states. These laws set up a fair, uniform, licensing procedure, including a background check, for law-abiding adults who wish to carry a firearm for lawful protection.
The NRA's promotion of background checks and licensing has earned it the wrath of Gun Owners of America, which accurately promotes itself as "The only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington" — in pointed contrast with the National Rifle Association. Anybody who's followed gun control politics for more than a few weeks knows about the NRA/GOA fight.
Cowan and Kessler then complain that the "NRA spent tens of millions of dollars in the last election to persuade gun-owning union households that a Gore administration would take away their guns. Although unions fought hard to persuade their members to vote their union and not their gun, the NRA's bogus scare tactic had an impact."
Well, the most visible signs of the NRA's "bogus" campaign were billboards containing the text of a letter from Clinton/Gore Solicitor General Seth Waxman claiming that the Second Amendment guaranteed no individual rights and that the federal government could take away everyone's guns, if it wanted to. After a shooting at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Gore said that he favored banning self-loading handguns, which constitute over half of all handguns. Gore ran television ads touting his tie-breaking 1999 Senate vote in favor of the Lautenberg Amendment on gun shows. Yet Cowan and Kessler themselves denounce the Lautenberg Amendment because it treated "hobbyists who attend these shows like dangerous social misfits."
So Gore's administration says there's no right to own a gun; Gore endorses banning most handguns; and Gore applauds himself for his decisive vote in favor of treating gun hobbyists like dangerous social misfits. And yet Cowan and Kessler claim that the NRA is guilty of n "bogus scare" tactics for warning gun owners about Al Gore?
After echoing the absurd anti-NRA propaganda lines of the gun prohibition lobbies, Cowan and Kessler announce that Democrats and "gun safety" advocates "need to make gun owners partners in developing policies that help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and make guns safer in the home." They also call for Americans to "embrace a 'third way' gun policy that treats gun ownership as neither an absolute right nor an absolute wrong ."
First of all, the "third way" that Cowan and Kessler advocate happens to be what the NRA has been promoting all along. The gun activists who want an "absolute right" have long ago defected to Gun Owners of America.
Cowan and Kessler extensively tout their proposal for imposing special restrictions on firearms sales at gun shows, and falsely claim that there is a "gun show loophole." To the contrary, current federal law applies the same no matter where a gun sale takes place. If the sale is by someone "engaged in the business," then the seller needs to have a Federal Firearms License, and every sale needs permission from the FBI--including sales at gun shows.
If on the other hand, the seller is not "engaged in the business" (e.g., a collector selling a couple guns in order to pay for the family's summer vacation), then the federal restrictions on dealers are not applicable. Whether he sells the two guns to a friend at work, to a neighbor, through the classified ads, or at a gun show, the law is the same.
Whatever the merits of making the collector's occasional sales at a gun show subject to special restrictions not applicable elsewhere, to claim that these special restrictions are "closing a loophole" is Orwellian. The majority of the American public may be misinformed about the existence of a "gun show loophole" — but gun-rights activists (the folks who delivered five states and thus the Presidency to George Bush last November) certainly are not. If Cowan, Kessler, AGS, and the DLC are serious about defusing opposition from gun rights activists, a good first step would be to stop mischaracterizing existing gun laws.
And if Americans for Gun Safety actually believes its public rhetoric about supporting the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns, then how about supporting repeal of the handgun prohibition laws in Chicago and District of Columbia? In fact, AGS was recently asked about supporting repeal of gun-prohibition laws — which would seem to be a rather easy idea for people who genuinely support a "third way" between the gun-prohibition lobbies and the NRA. AGS refused.
What Cowan and Kessler are really advocating is not a genuine "third way," but rather classic Clintonian sleight-of-hand. They pay lip service to the "rights" of gun owners--but they won't even go so far as to state that the Second Amendment guarantees any rights. Presumably, the hope is to fool some poorly informed gun owners into believing that their rights are safe while the antigun lobby pushes gun control a bit farther down the slippery slope.
Mr. Cowan, by the way, is former chief of staff to former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. This makes him the right-hand man of the most antigun Cabinet member of the most antigun administration in American history. As Cuomo's chief of staff, Cowan was hip-deep in working with the hard core of the antigun lobby (the very folks he claims to be distant from, today) to threaten abusive government lawsuits against American gun manufacturers. Would a genuinely moderate, third-way group make someone with Cowan's background its president?
As one might expect from an article written by a former Clinton official, much of the article is devoted to an analysis of polls, feelings, political maneuver and clever use of labels like "gun safety" instead of "gun control." Although the authors point out that some people believe the Second Amendment confirms an individual right, they are careful not to agree or disagree.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Cowan and Kessler are simply telling the antigun enthusiasts of the Democratic party to control their emotions, to muzzle the counter-productive hate speech, to impose control by salami tactics, and to stop harming their cause by grabbing for more than they have the political force to take.
There really are some Democrats who usually support gun control, but who sincerely believe in at least some Second Amendment rights. Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold is one of them. But if the DLC wants voters to believe that there's really a New Democrat vision on gun control, the DLC ought to publish someone who affirms the Second Amendment and who stands against gun prohibition — rather than an old-fashioned Clinton official who's discovered Fabian tactics.