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.)
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."
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."
and a federal database
In her perfect world, Watts would start with a national system, a federal database of checked backgrounds.
"Generally, I don't think you can argue with the concept of background checks," says Guy Relford. "Okay, I'm an NRA instructor, I'm a Second Amendment lawyer, so people naturally say I'm against gun control. I would never say that I'm against any kind of gun control that's logically calculated to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have guns. The question then becomes: who shouldn't have guns? Criminals, unsupervised kids, and crazy people."
Relford points out that if background checks were a part of every transaction — including private ones — there'd be a de facto necessity for some kind of universal registration of the product, in the same manner as a sale of a vehicle between two neighbors.
"The problem is there's no way to enforce universal background checks without universal registration. Let's say they passed a statute tomorrow that to transfer a gun, even from private individual to private individual, you have to trace the weapon.
"If you want to buy my AR-15 in a parking lot, and we go do that ... if they find you with my AR-15, and they then say, 'Where'd you get this?' and you respond, 'I'm taking the Fifth,' how do they prove that a) you bought that from me, and b) you bought it without a background check? They can't — unless they already have a record of what I own and what you own, so if they find you with something that I previously owned and there's no record of a background check, they could prosecute me for that crime. So then the question becomes: How do we as a nation feel about universal registration? ... When we're talking about the number of crimes that would be prevented, I think you're talking about a very small number because most criminals obtain their guns illegally anyway.
"I don't think a reduction [in crime] is balanced against a risk of the infringement of the rights of law-abiding people who've never committed a crime, who never will commit a crime, that's made possible by universal registration.
"We have ... in Connecticut where there's a new assault weapon registration law that says that if you have a rifle that falls under this definition ... you have to register it. There were several hundred people who sent in their requests to register after the deadline, which was the end of the year. They got letters that said 'Well, thank you very much for telling us you have this rifle, you didn't register this in time, you own this illegally, and we know who you are.' Here's somebody trying to comply with the law, they got caught on a technicality, [and] now suddenly they're being threatened with the seizure of their own guns."
The SCOTUS interpretation of the words "well-regulated Militia" lies at the heart of some of Relford's fears. In Relford's view, the people must be armed: it was the clearest way to let King George III know that if he tried to replace the nascent democracy with a return to tyranny, he'd be in for a fight. Second Amendment proponents honestly believe that it's patriotic to be a responsible gun owner. According to Relford, "Admiral Yamamoto, during World War Two, was asked why he didn't invade mainland America when the Pacific Fleet of the US was in complete disarray and mostly destroyed. He had a free path across the Pacific. Why didn't he do it? He said, 'I would never invade the mainland United States — there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.'"
"When we're talking about the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment, how well does that fit with the Admiral's quote? That was 150 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment; [the founders] clearly envisioned a perfect application of "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State."
As with seemingly everything else involved in the American firearms discussion, the veracity of that quote's up for debate.
Watts doesn't think that Relford's views on background checks necessarily lines up with the rank and file of the NRA. "If you look at the polling of the members of the NRA, a huge majority of those members actually support common-sense laws like background checks. I think this is a tale of an extremely vocal minority versus a silent majority ... [The] gun lobby has managed to convince [that vocal minority] that their guns will be taken away or their constitutional rights are going to be attacked.
"I assumed I was being protected. I assumed that my legislature was doing the right thing. Yes, these shootings were horrible but they were an anomaly. But then you realize that it's not just about mass shootings, it's about the eight children or teens who are shot and killed in this country every single day. It's about the NRA and the gun lobby who are working to let domestic abusers keep guns and who are working to lower the age of those who can purchase guns."
Patriotism, rage and the dissenter
Watts comes back to a point she wants to reiterate; it's really the NRA's top dogs she's got a beef with. When the convention's in town, "We are having our own events. They're really aimed at the leadership of the NRA. It isn't an issue of their members, who overwhelmingly support things like background checks. It's the leadership that is so out of step and wrong on [these issues]. We expect to have moms in town; moms, victims, mayors, citizens to talk about why we think it's so important that the NRA listen to its members and changes its stance on things like background checks."
Still, Watts gets some pretty intense heat from Second Amendment hardliners — so much so that email requests for interviews to the MDA press office generate an automatic reply: "Inappropriate or threatening correspondence will be reported."
"I have been exposed to an underbelly of America that I didn't know existed," says Watts. "The profanity, the threats of violence, threats of sexual violence, threats to my family — I think this issue isn't unlike other issues in America's history. In many ways, it is a civil rights issue: we're fighting for the protection of innocent Americans, common sense and responsibility. It touches a lot of hot points, and there's definitely blowback that has come my way [since] starting this organization."
She also heard from "false flag" conspiracy theorists, people who believe events like Sandy Hook are staged for the Feds to use as an excuse to erode the Bill of Rights. "I had no idea that there was any such thing out there as people who didn't believe that Sandy Hook had actually happened. As someone who is now very good friends with people who lost mothers and sisters and children in Sandy Hook, it's such a shocking idea to me to ever think that your government would deceive you in such a way but also that you would have such a lack of empathy for others who've been through such a horrific experience."
Why is the debate so contentious, so vitriolic? Why is there so much rancor?
Says Relford, "I think from the gun-owning public's side, where a lot of it comes from ... you've got several million law-abiding gun owners who've never committed a crime. Through the gun control push, by a lot of different groups, we are being treated like we're the cause of crazy people hurting others in movie theaters or in schools, and that we're now being punished for the crimes of other people when we've never committed a crime. ... law-abiding, sane, responsible gun owners get lumped in with criminals and psychopaths, and there's a very deep offense that's taken from that because we feel that we're the ones who'll stand up to defend our families and our country."
Retired US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens calls for a vastly different definition of the phrase "well-regulated Militia" than the one offered by Relford and the current Court. In his book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (excerpted by the Washington Post), Stevens writes:
"Organizations such as the National Rifle Association ... mounted a vigorous campaign claiming that federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Americans' Second Amendment rights. Five years after his retirement, during a 1991 appearance on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, [Chief Justice Warren] Burger himself remarked that the Second Amendment 'has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word "fraud" on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.'
"In recent years two profoundly important changes in the law have occurred. In 2008, by a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a civilian's right to keep a handgun in his home for purposes of self-defense. And in 2010, by another vote of 5 to 4, the court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment limits the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. I dissented in both of those cases and remain convinced that both decisions misinterpreted the law and were profoundly unwise. Public policies concerning gun control should be decided by the voters' elected representatives, not by federal judges."
Calling the current interpretation of the Amendment a distortion, Stevens went on to suggest the following wording:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed."
It's tough to imagine the kind of mail Stevens might be getting. It's tougher to fathom that it might take another Newtown before we drop the rhetoric and work toward viable policy changes informed by the distinction between the special interests at the top of groups like the NRA and the Association's mostly thoughtful — and patriotic —rank and file. n