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Why gun rights groups need to be proactive.

It may sound a bit like jargon from someone who has attended one too many business or marketing seminars, but it really does describe an important step: "Be proactive, not reactive." Unfortunately, gun rights groups have been far more often reactive to tragedies like Newtown, rather than pushing for solutions in the good times when nothing tragic is going on.

There are several problems with being reactive: we don't get to define the political agenda; we are perceived as defensively protecting what much of the news media derisively calls toys; our legitimate concerns about other issues are ignored as an attempt to deflect attention away from guns.

At this point, you are probably saying that we never get to define the political agenda because the news media are hostile to us. Yes, you are correct that they are hostile, and that is all the more reason why we need to be focusing attention on our solutions when people are not overwhelmed with rage or passion about the issue.

In the best of times, the national news media are going to treat anything we say with suspicion and contempt, but at least the general population will be prepared to hear us out.

How can we be proactive on this measure? In the past, there are two areas where gun rights groups have been effective by being proactive: one is the passage of shall-issue concealed weapon permit laws. This has dramatically expanded the number of Americans who have a personal interest in handguns because they may now actually have one away from their home. Many people in 1970 saw little point to owning handguns because the one thing that handguns are uniquely good for, self-defense away from home, was essentially unlawful in most states.

A second area where gun owners have been proactive with great success is state preemption laws, which specify that no local government may pass a more restrictive law on possession or carrying of firearms than state law. The net effect of these preemption laws has been to disarm local gun control groups, especially in politically correct cities around universities.

Let me suggest several areas where gun rights groups would be well advised, once the current crisis has cooled off, to be actively involved in pushing new legislation. One issue that I have written about in this column for many years is the problem of mental health care. While the random acts of mass murder are a small percentage of all U.S. murders, they are disproportionate in the emotional and terroristic impact that they have on the general population. Simplifying the process of emergency commitment of persons with serious mental illness problems is a clear win for reducing future unspeakable tragedies like Newtown.

Additionally, many states have severe shortages of psychiatric beds in state mental hospitals, meaning that even people who are clearly in need of treatment will not receive it. This is a hard sell to legislators who do not realize that yes, psychiatric beds are expensive, but drawing chalk marks around dead bodies and prosecuting mentally ill murderers isn't free, either. I have been working hard on this problem in Idaho without success.

We can emphasize the importance of violent entertainment as a factor in encouraging those with serious problems into tragic results. I don't believe that violent entertainment is going to turn a healthy, normal person into a mass murderer, but it is not much of a leap of faith to see how a person with serious psychological problems, living on a steady diet of violent movies and video games, such as the Newtown shooter, might find a certain level of reinforcement to dangerous ideas that he already held.

I am not suggesting that gun rights groups should be actively promoting censorship, but it would certainly be worthwhile to continually remind our legislators that freedom has consequences. Gun rights means that occasionally there will be horrendous crimes; freedom of expression means that film and videogame makers have to acknowledge that there are consequences to their moral pollution of our society. I see that the CEO of Sony Pictures is calling on Hollywood to stop making films that portray homosexuals in a bad light. (My first thought was, "When did she write this speech? In 1980?") Her reason:

"What we see in the media today affects everybody, whether it's film, TV, radio, magazines or the internet. What the media says about your sexual orientation, and the' color of your skin, and the shape of your eyes, and your ethnicity--what you look like, what you weigh, what you wear, how poor you are, how awkward you are, how educated you are, and how different you are--this stuff really sinks in. What we see teaches us about how to feel about ourselves and how to feel about each other." (1)

Yet Hollywood is still insisting that violent movies that both glorify gunfights and trivialize their consequences at the same time, such as Inception and any movie made by Quentin Tarantino, have nothing to do with violence in our society.

Another area where gun rights groups should be proactive is the question of mandatory firearms sale background checks. Here is an example of how framing the question correctly may prevent the other side from passing the type of law that they want in a time of emotion. I have just started to research the effects of state background check laws, and so far, I am seeing no persuasive evidence that they are effective in reducing murder rates. It is certainly the case that a mandatory background check law that produces gun registration records is quite dangerous, which is why gun control advocates push for those sort of laws.

Instead, what we should be pushing for are state laws that provide a strong incentive for gun owners to transfer firearms through a background check system that produces no registration records. Such a law could provide complete immunity from civil suits if a gun owner could demonstrate that he had submitted a purchaser's information to an existing state or federal background check system, and received an authorization number, very much like what happens today with the national background check done by dealers.

There would be no firearm registration information: merely that a particular person purchased a firearm on a particular date. Because the beneficiary of this system is the society as a whole, the state should pay for this background check.

This would put gun control advocates in the uncomfortable position of having to argue against a state background check system for private party sales because it does not produce firearms registration information. They would also argue that because there are no registration records, it would be difficult to trace guns used in crimes back to the person who first put that gun into a criminal's hands.

However, the gun can be traced forward from the manufacturer to the first retail purchaser. If he can't provide an explanation of who he sold that gun to, or provide evidence that he ran a background check on the buyer, he would be at risk of civil suit. The gun control advocates often insist that this problem of criminal guns is because there are people intentionally buying and reselling guns for straw purchasers. This is certainly part of the problem, and the risk of civil suit bankrupting such persons would seem like a pretty effective deterrent. At the same time, such a law would not be mandatory, although any gun owner who refused to go through the background check on a gun sale would have to be at least foolish, if he is not one of these facilitators of guns getting into criminal hands.

I know that this is not going to sit well with some readers. There are many of you who see no harm in the time-honored American practice of going to a pi show and making a swap of one gun for another. There was a time when there was really no harm: most of the really serious dangerous criminals in our society were kept in prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Many states had career criminal laws, whereby a third felony conviction would get you a life sentence.

Those days are over. We have some serious problems that we need to confront, and making principled arguments against background check laws is unlikely to be successful. I am not even sure that demonstrating that these mandatory background check laws don't work is going to much matter to legislators, because support for such laws is extremely high.

There are people in our society who cannot be trusted with guns: the severely mentally ill; convicted violent criminals; illegal aliens. We can either figure out how to write laws that protect our interests to serve this purpose, or we can watch gun control advocates pass background check laws that will become gun registration laws. I would rather that our side be setting the terms of the debate.

(1) Jen Yamato, "Amy Pascal Asks Hollywood To Eliminate Gay Slurs And Stereotypes From Movies," Deadline Hollywood, March 22, 2013, last accessed March 23, 2013.

Clayton E Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His website is
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Author:Cramer, Clayton E.
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:May 1, 2013
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