The following was published in Bloomberg View on July 26, 2012.
It has been a week since the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. The two major U.S. presidential candidates spent the past week avoiding the subject of whether anything should be done to prevent such shootings from recurring.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, declared Wednesday that “changing the heart of the American people” is our best hope to stop the carnage. President Barack Obama offered little more than support for his past positions, such as banning assault weapons. Very likely, both candidates will spend the next few months avoiding the issue altogether.
The wise men of Washington tell us that candidates are silent on guns because to speak out is to incur the wrath of the National Rifle Association. But polls consistently show that gun owners, including NRA members, overwhelmingly support the common sense measures that mayors across the country have been trying to get Washington to pass for years.
More than 700 mayors, from both political parties, have joined together to stop the flow of illegal guns into our communities. Mayors know all too well that the debate on the Second Amendment is over. The Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment grants citizens the right to bear arms, subject to reasonable restrictions. The question is: What should those restrictions look like?
Mayors and the NRA strongly agree that the federal government should enforce the laws already on the books. Federal law prohibits all felons -- and those with a history of mental illness or drug abuse -- from possessing guns.
The NRA believes -- rightly -- that enforcing the law means prosecuting criminals to the fullest extent. In New York state, we have increased the mandatory minimum prison sentence for illegal possession of a loaded gun to 3 1/2 years, one of the toughest penalties in the country.
But whether fighting illegal guns or drugs, we should seek not merely to make arrests, but to prevent the crime from occurring in the first place.
That is why the federal government requires licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks to determine whether an individual is eligible to purchase a gun.
Nonlicensed sellers, however, are not required to perform federal background checks, and as much as 40 percent of gun sales slip through this loophole. Criminals and the deranged can buy guns simply by logging on to the Internet or visiting a gun show -- and they do, every day. Stopping them requires background checks for every gun sale, a change strongly supported by major law enforcement organizations, as well as gun owners and NRA members. But not the NRA’s leadership.
The NRA is a $200 million-plus-a-year lobbying juggernaut, with much of its funding coming from gun manufacturers and merchandising. More than anything, the NRA is a marketing organization, and its flagship product is fear. Gun sales jumped after Obama was elected president, based on the absurd -- and now demonstrably false -- fear that he would seek to ban guns.
There is one particular fear the NRA manufactures with great success: fear of electoral defeat. Romney has walked away from the assault-weapons ban he once supported, and in nearly four years, Obama has offered no legislation to rein in illegal guns. In Congress, the NRA threatens lawmakers who fail to do its ideological bidding, although its record in defeating candidates is much more myth than reality.
What can be done?
One of the U.S. Senate’s most pro-gun members has paradoxically shown how the battle might begin. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, also the chamber’s most sincere fiscal conservative, has made it his mission to diminish the influence of another ideological group that has exercised unwarranted sway over public policy: the anti-tax absolutists led by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform.
To confront Norquist, Coburn identified an indefensible tax -- the ethanol subsidy -- isolated it and forced a vote on it. His colleagues, many of whom had signed Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes, were forced to choose between opposing what Coburn decried as an obvious “special interest giveaway” or looking like spineless shills for Norquist. By heightening attention on the vote, the tactic worked. The $5.4 billion ethanol subsidy was voted down.
The Coburn approach could be applied to guns. Elected officials who profess to be tough on crime but who also oppose tougher measures to stop illegal guns can’t be in two places at once -- particularly when many law enforcement organizations support basic gun measures that simply don’t exist today. In the same way Coburn pointed out the ethanol-corporate welfare contradiction, a pro-gun senator can point out the obvious: It’s impossible to support police officers and law enforcement agencies and also oppose giving them the tools they need to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Some Americans view smarter, tougher gun measures as a hopeless crusade. But political environments change, especially when strong leaders build coalitions and carve new paths through seemingly settled territory. There are conservative, pro-gun rights members of Congress who understand that more can be done to keep guns away from dangerous people.
We know the special interests’ grip can be shaken; the most egregious gaps in gun regulation can be filled. The Coburn approach is proven. Who has the guts to follow it?