'We Have To Act' On Gun Violence. But How?
Editor's Note: In separate interviews for weekends on All Things Considered Sunday, host Guy Raz spoke with Rep. John Larson and journalist Paul Barrett. You can hear the discussions as they aired at the audio link above.
In a sermon Sunday morning on gun violence, the dean of the Washington National Cathedral said "enough is enough."
"We have tolerated mall shootings, theater shootings, sniper shootings, workplace shootings, temple and church shootings, urban neighborhood shootings for far too long," said The Very Rev. Gary Hall. "The massacre of these 28 people in Connecticut is, for me, the last straw."
Details are trickling through about Friday's mass shooting in which 26 children and adults were murdered at an elementary school in the town of Newtown. The gunman also killed his mother before committing suicide.
The tragedy has caused a resurgence of calls for new gun control laws. It's a familiar trend — but people such as Hall believe this time will be different. Even as a religious official, Hall feels he has an obligation to make an appeal that could be called political.
"In response to a national tragedy, it seems to me the truthful response needs to be a public response," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "And the way our society has decided that it engages in its public business is through its political structures."
But exactly what kind of political action would make a difference isn't clear.
'We Have To Act'
Half of the 12 deadliest shootings in American history have happened in the past five years, according to a statement released Saturday by Rep. John Larson. The Connecticut Democrat called for immediate measures to curb access to certain types of weapons and ammunition.
"We have to act. We can't just stand and lower the flags and ache along with everybody in Newtown, Conn. Especially for these parents, we have a responsibility to act," Larson said in an interview with NPR.
The state already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but the congressman is advocating for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity clips, and for background checks for gun sales — something that Raz notes doesn't happen at unlicensed gun shows.
"I don't know that any specific action, as it relates to providing common sense regulations, will stop somebody who has the mind to do something," Larson says. "However, that doesn't mean that common sense, practical matters, shouldn't be taken as a matter of prevention."
Accomplishing Actual Change
Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, says stricter gun laws might not make a difference. In an article Friday for Bloomberg Businessweek, he wrote that things like assault weapons bans are "utterly pointless."
He cites a ban on assault weapons in the 1990s. There hasn't been hard evidence showing how specific legislation made a significant impact on crime rates, Barrett says. He also notes that the gun industry found ways to change their designs to get around the ban, and that a type of gun which had not previously been popular actually became more appealing.
"As happens pretty consistently with our strange — you could even say perverse — firearm market place in this country, when you try to restrict something, you try to ban it, it makes it more popular among people who like guns," he says.
Barrett says he understands the human need for action, and banning a weapon can feel like substantive progress. "But it's also important to distinguish between symbolic gestures and the particular goal you're trying to accomplish," he says.
Although he wishes it weren't necessary, Barrett says his first recommendation is increasing security in certain public places, including movie theaters and schools. The second thing he says he would do involves finding a better way of dealing with mental illness: getting people help early on and separating them from weapons.
Neither increased security nor a new approach toward mental illness demands a debate over the Second Amendment, he says. Those debates can happen alongside other changes.
"By the way, there are certain gun control changes that I support, too," Barrett says, "but I don't have the illusion that they would prevent mass killings like the one we've just witnessed."
Will It Be Different?
Larson, the congressman, says he doesn't think any single measure will be a panacea. But he says finding a "comprehensive approach" — something both gun-control and gun rights advocates could agree on — makes common sense.
"I would rather be erring on the side of common-sense pragmatism and doing everything possible so that I felt that no stone was left unturned in terms of trying to protect school children," he says.
Larson hopes that this event will be a tipping point for political action.
"I believe that the horrific nature of this ... and the innocence of these kids [is] just so shocking and horrific that I believe — and it's my hope — that Congress will respond," he says.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Of the 12 deadliest shootings in American history, half of them have happened in the past five years. That's a statistic cited in a statement released yesterday by Congressman John Larson. He's a Democrat, and he's from Connecticut. And in that statement, he called for immediate measures to curb access to certain types of weapons and ammunition.
Congressman John Larson joins me now on the line. And, Congressman, first of all, my condolences to you and to all the people of Connecticut.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LARSON: Well, thank you, Guy. You know, our hearts are broken, but we need to respond. If we do nothing - we being the Congress - we are, in fact, complicit. It's not an assault against the NRA or gun owners, God bless them. And I respect their right to own and carry and for recreation purposes have guns. Nothing to do with that.
This is about saving lives of children. This is about preventing another massacre of this nature. And it's as much about mental health issues and a community response as well. And it is about a national conversation, as the president has indicated, but we have to act. We can't just stand and lower the flags and ache along with everybody in Newtown, Connecticut, and especially for these parents, we have a responsibility to act.
RAZ: Congressman, you have called for a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity clips, background checks for all gun sales, something that, as you say, does not happen at unlicensed gun shows.
RAZ: Your state, Connecticut, has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. What could more gun control do?
LARSON: Well, as I said in the release, I don't know that any specific action as it relates to providing commonsense regulations will stop somebody who has the mind to do something. However, now, that doesn't mean that common sense, practical matters, shouldn't be taken as a matter of prevention.
Just like after terrorist attacks, we change the way that we look at things in this country. We change the way that we responded because we recognize that there was a threat, that there was a danger. And as you point out, you know, these things are occurring with greater frequency and greater intensity as well.
RAZ: There are, as you know, hundreds of millions of guns. It's estimated 300 million guns in private hands already in the U.S. How does a weapons ban - a new weapons ban - help make us safer if that's the case?
LARSON: Well, I think from my perspective, you put a tourniquet on and you stop the bleeding. Look, the point is this. That I don't think any single measure, you know, I don't think any single mental health measure, I don't think any single gun control measure, nor any single community-wide response in and of itself will provide the panacea.
But I do think that a comprehensive approach, a common sense, practical approach that both NRA, owners and, you know, gun control advocates would agree on that this makes common sense. I would rather be erring on the side of commonsense pragmatism and doing everything possible so that I felt that no stone was left unturned in terms of trying to protect schoolchildren.
RAZ: Congressman, when you return to Washington with your colleagues, why do you think it will be different this time? I mean, there have been calls to strengthen gun laws before, obviously, especially after horrific tragedies.
RAZ: Why will it be different this time?
LARSON: I believe that the horrific nature of this in that every single parent across this country and the innocence of these kids is just so shocking and horrific that I believe that - and it's my hope - that Congress will respond.
RAZ: That's Democratic Congressman John Larson from Connecticut. Congressman, thank you for joining us.
LARSON: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: Paul Barrett wrote a book on how guns became so pervasive in America. It's called "Glock." And in a recent article for Businessweek magazine, he wrote about why he believes stricter gun laws may not make a difference and why he believes things like assault weapons bans are utterly pointless.
PAUL BARRETT: Because there's nothing distinctively lethal about the guns that tend to be labeled assault weapons. That's just another term, a sort of pejorative term, for a military-style semiautomatic rifle, which means a rifle that fires one round for each pull of the trigger.
We tried banning certain assault weapons in the 1990s. Two things happened. One, the gun industry immediately found its way around the ban by simply tinkering with the design of guns. And, two, criminologists have been unable to identify any significant effect on crime rates that they could link to that particular piece of legislation.
And actually, there's a third point to make, which is this style of rifle really had not been particularly popular among gun buyers, had not been pushed heavily by gun sellers, until it was banned, until it became notorious. And then as happens pretty consistently with our strange - you could even say perverse - firearm marketplace in this country when you try to restrict something, you try to ban it, it makes it more popular among people who like guns.
RAZ: We mentioned to John Larson something that you have pointed out in your work, which is that there are hundreds of millions of guns in private hands in this country. So what difference would it make? He acknowledges that these kinds of laws may not end gun violence and these kinds of tragedies, but that something has to be done. That's his argument.
BARRETT: Yeah. Well, I think it's very, very understandable on a human level and on an emotional level to say and to deeply believe that something must be done and something must be done immediately and it has to be dramatic. And banning a weapon that you see as being particularly dangerous feels like you're getting something done. But it's also important to distinguish between symbolic gestures and the particular goal you're trying to accomplish.
And that's why, when approaching these issues, as difficult as they are - and in the wake of a horrific massacre like this, as difficult as it is to think clearly, we really do need to pause, take a deep breath and ask what can we do in the short-term meetings for the long-term that is actually likely to prevent this type of event.
RAZ: Well, what would you do?
BARRETT: Well, when I go to Yankee Stadium to attend a Yankees game, I get searched, so does everybody else who goes into the stadium. The very first thing I would do in connection with deterring or stopping or ameliorating the impact of mass shootings in public places would be to increase security. This is not a panacea. This is not a very satisfying or emotionally resonant response. It doesn't ban anything. It seems very mundane.
But if I owned a movie theater or I ran a house of worship or I supervise a school, I would make sure that you had armed security the way we do in front of federal court buildings, in front of other government buildings and the type of security that we routinely accept these days at sports stadiums and at airports.
RAZ: But, Paul, you're talking about a potential massive expansion of the private security industry in this country. Is that the kind of America you want to see?
BARRETT: No, that's not what I want. I realize this is not a very emotionally or politically satisfying answer, but it is my first best answer for something that can be done about particular public places if you want to try to diminish the danger, if you actually want to do something.
RAZ: Well, what's the second answer?
BARRETT: My second answer is that we begin a very thorough review of how we as a society deal with mental illness and the intersection between mental illness, criminal behavior and violence. Right now, it is almost impossible for the relatives or friends or colleagues of someone who's older than 18 years old to get them some type of forced medical treatment if their behavior begins to appear threatening.
We have a very porous, disorganized system for dealing with that situation. And I think we need to talk much more and figure out a different set of rules for what people can do when they see a loved one, a work colleague, a student, what have you, beginning to deteriorate. And we need to figure out how to separate those people from weapons, make sure they get medicated and make sure that this mentally ill person doesn't commit some other lesser crime and end up in prison.
We have hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people in prison. Our de facto social policy right now is to warehouse them in prisons. That's not working, either. And that's the area that I would focus on. You'll notice that neither of my responses immediately requires a debate about the Second Amendment.
It could be worked on in parallel alongside debate about gun control. And, by the way, there are certain gun control changes that I support, too, but I don't have the illusion that they would prevent mass killings like the one we've just witnessed.
RAZ: That's Paul Barrett. He is an assistant managing editor and a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, and he's also the author of the book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Paul Barrett, thank you.
BARRETT: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me on your show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.