What can Americans learn from the bitter debate over the gun reform bill?
Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that the leadership of the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners of America and their tame Republican politicians have all earned an epithet of derision they used to hurl regularly at liberals.
Yes, the gun lobby and its legislative servants are "soft on crime" — although they routinely pretend to be tough on criminals.
During the Clinton presidency, NRA president-for-life Wayne LaPierre raised vast amounts of money with direct-mail campaigns against both Bill and Hillary Clinton for supposedly coddling criminals. Dubbed "Crimestrike," the NRA crusade pushed prison construction, mandatory minimum sentencing and sundry other panaceas designed to position the NRA as the bane of muggers, rapists and murderers. Those themes echoed traditional Republican propaganda messages dating back to the Nixon era, when the presidential crook himself often derided judicial concerns about civil liberties and promised to restore "law and order." (When Nixon henchmen like the late Chuck Colson went to prison themselves, they often emerged as prison reformers and civil libertarians, of course.)
But in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, with the NRA angrily opposing any measure designed to hinder criminals from acquiring firearms, the public is learning who is really soft on crime.
Police officials across the country want universal background checks, magazine limits, and stronger enforcement against illegal weapons sales, but the NRA and its Republican allies insist that such changes will penalize legitimate gun owners. Or they complain that criminals mainly obtain weapons by stealing them, so restrictions on sales won't make any difference.
Even a cursory examination of the facts demonstrates those claims are false. Gun trafficking experts at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have long known that less than 15 percent of all crime guns are stolen from their original owners. Much more common sources of guns used by criminals are so-called "straw purchases," where a person with a clean record buys a gun on behalf of a criminal, and corrupt purchases, where a licensed gun dealer knowingly sells to a criminal. Bipartisan gun legislation now before the Senate would crack down on these sales by increasing penalties for straw purchasers who willfully help criminals buy guns. The NRA has offered tepid support for that provision — but it is virtually meaningless without universal background checks, which the gun lobby opposes.
As Will Saletan pointed out in Slate last January, the NRA has consistently (and successfully) sought to kill the most basic efforts to keep guns away from convicted criminals and other dangerous characters — including abusive spouses under court protection orders, drug dealers and even individuals listed on the Justice Department's terrorist watch list.
In the wake of the Boston bombing, as the nation ponders how to bolster its security, the gun lobby's tender concern for the Second Amendment "rights" of terrorists and thugs ought to permanently discredit them and their political servants. Instead they have achieved another bloody victory in Washington.
To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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