It is a measure of how subservient our political system is to the gun lobby that when the Supreme Court affirmed a federal gun ownership ban for domestic abuse convicts this week, it was hailed as a huge victory. In a 6-2 decision, the court deemed that the two plaintiffs from Maine, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, would have to abide by a 1996 law banning those convicted of domestic violence from buying guns, even though their convictions were apparently based on actions considered “reckless” rather than intentional.
The Lautenberg Amendment strengthened the 1968 Gun Control Act by making it a felony for those convicted of domestic violence-related misdemeanors to “ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.” While the law is good on paper, and is one of the few federal gun restrictions we have, the trouble is that enforcement is difficult.
Only when Voisine was caught killing a bald eagle did law enforcement officials realize that he possessed a gun in violation of the Lautenberg Amendment. Voisine had been convicted of assault and domestic violence-related charges over a dozen times before. Maine and several other states fail to submit conviction records to the federal government, making background checks an unreliable filter.
Still, at a time when gun violence in the United States occurs daily, the Supreme Court affirmation feels like a victory. But it shouldn’t.
Neither should the recent Democratic show of force in the House chamber over (among other gun-related issues) a bill that would ban people on the federal terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. The dramatic sit-in, led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was good political theater, reflecting public frustration over congressional intransigence on an issue so obvious that all other industrialized nations have managed to effectively address it. But even Donald Trump thinks banning people on the watch list is a no-brainer, underscoring just how skewed our politics on guns have become.
The watch list is a red herring. The Orlando nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen, was twice in the FBI’s crosshairs and cleared both times. The very premise of the watch list is flawed, based on the assumption that you can racially and politically profile radicalism and predict its outcome. It is an unconstitutional tool that denies people due process and considers them guilty before being proved so. And, given that there is no trend of watch-list members purchasing weapons and wreaking violence to begin with, such action will not stop gun violence. It will simply help lawmakers score political points.
A watch list ban would not have stopped Christy Sheats, for example. Sheats, a Texas woman and proud owner of multiple guns, once proclaimed on her Facebook page, “It would be horribly tragic if my ability to protect myself or my family were to be taken away, but that’s exactly what Democrats are determined to do by banning semi-automatic handguns.” Months later, Sheats called a family meeting and fatally shot her two daughters, even stopping to reload her gun before chasing one of the girls out into the street and gunning her down. (The Facebook post has since been removed, but Google has cached the original.) Already there are speculations about Sheats’ “history of mental illness,” a favored means of casting gun violence incidents as anomalies that no amount of regulations could prevent.
If preempting gun violence was truly the goal of the watch-list bill that lawmakers support, then perhaps public proclamations of gun-loving people like Sheats might be a better indicator of coming violence. A man like former police officer and Trump supporter Jim Stachowiak, who publicly called for the shooting of black protesters at the Republican National Convention, might fit the bill too. There are plenty of Americans openly touting guns, hoarding them, carrying them, proudly announcing they will use them if need be.
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The state of Hawaii has extrapolated that idea to its natural limit by simply putting all gun owners within the state on an FBI watch list. This is sensible. If you have a gun, perhaps you should be suspected of wanting to commit some sort of violence someday, particularly if you own military-style assault rifles. After all, those who procure other types of weapons, such as grenades and bombs, that are also capable of killing human beings with ease and have few other conceivable uses, are legitimately considered suspected criminals.
The double standard of the legality of gun ownership is well illustrated by Cleveland, the site of the upcoming Republican National Convention. In anticipation of masses of people coming together in a politically polarized and highly charged atmosphere, the city has banned the carrying of most types of weaponry, including knives, axes and even fake guns around the area of the convention. But the city is in a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation. Ohio, which gets a “D” grade from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, allows practically anyone over the age of 18 to buy as many guns as he or she wants. It is also an open-carry state, which means gun owners can openly sport their weapons. So Cleveland, in anticipation of potential violence, is sensibly banning all weapons near the convention, except one of the most dangerous, compact and portable weapons—guns—because of the state’s insane gun laws. By the logic of gun rights activists, the more weapons floating around in society, the safer we all are. Why then should any weapon be banned? Won’t we all be safer walking around with all manner of deadly weapons? In fact, if troublemakers wanted to hurt someone outside the convention, they might be better off carrying a gun—a legal weapon—rather than a knife.
The Secret Service, which ostensibly knows a thing or two about keeping people safe, has trumped the state’s gun laws and banned guns inside the convention. Strangely, the same lawmakers who side with the National Rifle Association’s all-guns-all-the-time position are deferring to the Secret Service. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has an “A” grade from the NRA, seemed to agree that banning guns from the RNC was a good idea, saying, “The Secret Service is very important in these decisions, as is security around the entire convention.” Sen. Ted Cruz, also an ardent defender of gun supremacy, agreed, saying, “You would certainly want to get the recommendation from Secret Service—how to maintain security for everyone.”
What does the Secret Service know about the correlation between guns and violence that the gun-rights crowd and NRA doesn’t? Perhaps the Secret Service can make similar recommendations of firearms bans for schools, colleges, churches, cafes, restaurants and, well, maybe even whole cities, as they have for the political conventions. Maybe then we could all experience the security and safety that Republican delegates will enjoy in a gun-free environment at the Cleveland convention.
The dissonance in the arguments around violence and guns stems from a bang-up job by the NRA in shaping our discourse. Take the group’s response to the Orlando shootings. Within days of the massacre, NRA News released a shameless (and frankly laughable) video featuring a bearded, Neanderthal-like former Navy SEAL named Dom Raso, with muscles bulging under his T-shirt as he sang the praises of the AR-15 rifle. The Orlando shooter had used a similar rifle, called the SIG Sauer rifle, whose manufacturer sponsors the NRA’s online videos. Raso spoke with force and conviction, using strong words like “guarantee” and “fortified.” He claimed, “The only way for us to stay free was by having whatever guns the bad guys have,” and ended with a literal call to arms: “Arm yourself, get the proper training, be aware of your surroundings at all times.” He and the NRA live in a video-game fantasy world of paranoia and fear that ignores the reality of how much more dangerous it is to be surrounded by guns than not.
Perhaps it is a big joke that gun manufacturers and their lobbyists are playing on us as they laugh all the way to the bank. In fact, it is hard to tell reality from satire. The left-leaning political theater duo The Yes Men recently held a fake news conference announcing a fictional NRA-sponsored program in which people could buy a gun and have a similar one donated to a poor person in an “underprivileged neighborhood” (i.e., “black”), just like the sales gimmick used by TOMS shoes. So convincing was the sendup that Snopes had to post a disclaimer. The Yes Men’s joke fell flat because there is almost nothing too ludicrous to attribute to the NRA anymore that wouldn’t sound like it really came from them. The group has proved the idea that if you say something often enough, with enough force of conviction, eventually enough people will begin believing it.
It is no wonder that lawmakers don’t hear the contradictions in their words when asked about security at their political convention. Even the public is confused. Polls show that, when asked in broad strokes about the right to bear arms, a majority of Americans strongly support the idea. Yet when asked about specific, strict gun-control measures, the public overwhelmingly supports restrictions on who can buy guns, what type of guns they can buy, how they are to be screened, how long they have to wait, etc. The Huffington Post captured this confusion well, saying, “The term ‘gun control’ seems to be a politicized phrase that encourages a partisan response. Yet when polls ask about precise measures, Americans show overwhelming support for certain restrictions.”
The NRA isn’t the only entity to blame for perverting our values on guns. Elected officials who accept money from the group and dutifully vote according to its tenets are equally to blame. Ultimately, we Americans also bear responsibility for throwing off the shackles of ideas that are based on lies, fear and the promotion of violence in the name of rights, liberty and happiness.