The Great Gun Debate and the NRA 

click to enlarge Guns_CoverStoryWeb.jpg

The radio ads have begun; the NRA is coming to town. The National Rifle Association is holding its annual meeting here in Indianapolis, with 600 exhibitors and tens of thousands of attendees — last year's soiree in Houston drew a record 86,288 folks.

Indy's tourism promoters stayed mum on the NRA's visit until the last possible moment: it's common knowledge that controversy follows this gathering. While the faithful are treated to speeches from Sarah Palin and Oliver North, there's a problematic backdrop for the convention.

According to the IMPD, the city of Indianapolis saw 125 murders in 2013; of those, 102 involved a firearm. The first three months of 2014 tallied 38 homicides, and 31 were the result of gunfire. Alarmed by the violence, Mayor Greg Ballard proposed in his State of the City address a 20-year minimum sentence for crimes in which guns played a part. Compounding the outrage, a 16-year-old kid with an extensive criminal record is in a local lockup, accused of murdering a 24-year-old expectant father with a stolen gun.

Odds are pretty good you have one of two reactions to the above paragraph. Either a) that the connection between a guaranteed Constitutional right and a high body count is at best moronic, and at worst, indicative of a conspiracy to undermine the founders' intent, or b) that the gun lobby is complicit in a lax patchwork of laws that keeps the bullets flying; that they've created a nation in which the profits of arms manufacturers supersede public safety.

Amendment II of the United States Constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Those maddening commas. The relationship of the "prefatory" clause to the "operative" clause; a "well regulated Militia" vs. "the right of the people."

The arguments over that bit of exposition, at times even more confounding than the First Amendment preceding it, have sparked a debate now so strident, so virulent and at times so downright insulting that the fundamental discussion of a Constitutional right and its legal limitations seem to be lost in the shuffle.

Thanks a lot, Facebook.

OK, OK — social media didn't bring us here, it just amped up the volume. But there's a reason that anyone with a stake in the conversation can expect to catch an insult or two or thirty: the rancor's been simmering between two sides, both claiming the high ground of their interpretation of common sense, and that argument has only been compounded by money, media and weaponry that the founders couldn't have imagined.

The phrase itself — "gun control" — was a hot-button issue for a lot of Americans for decades, but that heat ran past boiling when a disturbed young man named Adam Lanza shot his mother with her own weapon, then walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults before turning a gun on himself on Dec. 14, 2012. That event renewed debate concerning a national system of background checks and a limit on the number of rounds a magazine might contain.

That same afternoon, one of the most active gun-control advocates in the nation started her campaign from her home in Zionsville. We spoke with Shannon Watts, the founder of a group called Moms Demand Action. We also spoke with Guy Relford, an Indy attorney specializing in Second Amendment issues and a firearms instructor — yes, he does make money with his side business Tactical Firearms Training, LLC. (He's also author of the book Gun Safety & Cleaning for Dummies.)

How much should an Amendment be limited?

Watts has heard a lot from opponents about what really informs her activism. At a hearing on Indiana state bill — now a law — SB 229, which allows gun owners to keep firearms locked in their cars when the vehicle's on school property, Watts' appearance as a witness received such a rancorous push-back from some GOP legislators that Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, characterized their treatment of Watts as "bullying."

Despite the narrative about Watts' background that's surfaced on conservative websites, she's "never been a 'Democrat consultant' — I think they're getting that from my giving a couple thousand dollars to the Obama campaign ... Also, I've worked for several Fortune 500 companies, including Monsanto, General Electric, and WellPoint; hardly companies that lean left. And I have never taken a salary for this work, I'm not now, and I never will. I am 100 percent a volunteer."

Watts wasn't an activist before Newtown, she says, she was just a stay-at-home Mom sitting in her kitchen in Zionsville. "When Sandy Hook Elementary happened, for me, that was the tipping point. A lot of our moms say that [Sandy Hook] was like a 9/11 for moms in America: we all remember exactly where we were, how we reacted, remember the impact it had on us."

The campaign started simply, with a Facebook page. "Eighteen months later, [we became] the largest gun violence prevention grassroots network, meaning that we have a chapter in every single state in the country.

"For most of us, there's no going back — not just because of 26 people who were massacred in under five minutes in the sanctity of an elementary school in America, but also because we've learned so much about how lax the federal and state laws are. The more you learn, the more you realize that something has to be done."

Like what? What laws could have been in place that would've prevented Lanza from visiting such mayhem on innocent kids?

"It speaks to two things: one is that the unregulated easy access to guns in our country, including assault weapons. The other is the culture of gun violence in America. Forty percent of ... gun owners haven't had background checks. If you look state by state, the laws are incredibly lax. They should require training, and permitting and licensing, and we don't. ... We just want to create more checks and balances — we've done that with cars or tobacco or alcohol." (The accuracy of that 40 percent figure has been debated at length.)

click to enlarge Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action - BRIAN BROSMER
  • Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action
  • Brian Brosmer

The counter-argument is more than likely one you've already heard: you don't have a Constitutional right to drive, drink or smoke.

"I personally don't like the idea of the government telling me how and when I can exercise a Constitutional right," says Guy Relford. "I've made a living as an attorney for over 30 years now, but I went into firearms training because I wanted specifically to advocate safe gun handling, safe gun use and responsible gun ownership. Frankly, if ... there was a requirement that people had to take a class to get a license to carry or to even purchase a gun, I'm sure that I'd be hiring instructors and making a lot more money. But I don't like the idea of the government telling me how and when I can exercise a Constitutional right. For instance, I think the better analogy is that you don't have to take a training course before you can vote. Why? Because that's a guaranteed right, and the government can't dictate to you ... what process you go through to select your candidate."

Of course, the Supreme Court — notably, conservative justice Antonin Scalia — has found that it's completely acceptable to place some limitations on the Second Amendment. The same's been true of other Amendments, too, including the First. Random Citizen can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre; the FCC isn't fond of your local morning zoo radio host dropping an f-bomb along with the time and temp.

Relford speaks to two recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned a pair of city bans on handgun ownership: "That is really what the Supreme Court is already foreseeing as the next struggle after the [District of Columbia v. Heller] case in 2008 and the [McDonald v. Chicago] case; the Supreme Court came out and said — accurately — there needs to be some restriction. The courts found that a complete ban on handguns was unconstitutional, but where the line should be drawn, we don't know, but we'll tell you when we get that next case. In the present context, when we're talking about restrictions on law-abiding citizens, where should those restrictions lie? I think that the Supreme Court had accurately foreseen that they don't really know, but they'll address it on a case-by-case basis.

"We do have some important direction. In the Heller case, what they said is that a firearm that is commonly used for self-defense must be available to citizens. In that context, they were talking about handguns. A complete ban on handguns clearly put a material burden on a core value embodied by that Constitutional right. As the Supreme Court of Indiana has held, the core value embodied in the Second Amendment is the right to possess arms for self-defense."

click to enlarge Guy Relford; attorney, author and firearms instructor - BRIAN BROSMER
  • Guy Relford; attorney, author and firearms instructor
  • Brian Brosmer

Surely the Founding Fathers could not have envisioned the firepower of a rifle like the AR-15, though, right?

"Do we go back and say that the rights conferred by the First Amendment shouldn't apply to today's technology because the founders didn't envision the internet?" asks Relford. "Clearly not, those principles still apply perfectly"

"In terms of today's modern weaponry, the Supreme Court refuses to limit what's commonly in use at the time to defend oneself and one's family. In 1789, it was the musket. What's the 2014 equivalent? ... Clearly handguns are in that category, as determined by the Supreme Court, and we can have a debate about what else falls within that. I would submit to you that the most commonly owned and most commonly purchased rifle in America is the AR-15.

"If we apply that definition to the 'most commonly used rifle,' then clearly, the rationale of the court is that [an AR-15] was intended to be included."

For Shannon Watts, the problem isn't about the close votes of the court. It's state and national legislatures caving to the interests and pressures of the gun lobby.

That lobby's not the product of a singular voice, either, according to Watts: "The NRA is the largest, but that doesn't mean they're the most virulent. The NSSF (National Shooting Sports Foundation), who came in after Sandy Hook, and took the exact opposite tack that you would assume a gun lobby organization would take. [Instead of saying] "How do we make this better?" they're worried about protecting their profits. When I testified recently at the Indiana State Legislature, [pro-gun legislators] were reading to me directly from a book of data and statistics created by John Lott, and he's a researcher who's been proven to come up with faulty data that supports the gun lobby's points of view.

"They've had a 30-year head start, the NRA and the gun lobby at large. This idea that we're going to change all of this overnight — it isn't that simple. It's going to take years. That's why we've started this organization to go toe to toe with the gun lobby at the state level and the federal level."

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