(Illustration by Selçuk Demirel/Marlena Agency)

(Illustration by Selçuk Demirel/Marlena Agency)

Background checks and balances

How to legislate gun safety.

“The horrific tragedy at Newtown has rekindled the national debate on guns that has been going on for half a century,” said Institute of Politics director David Axelrod, AB’76, introducing a January 15 discussion to a crowd of about 500 at the Logan Center’s performance hall. “All Americans grieve these losses, yet we can’t seem to agree on what to do about them.”

Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw moderated “The Politics of Guns in America,” a panel featuring Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, retired US representative Steven LaTourette, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, and University of Chicago Crime Lab director Jens Ludwig. Watch the entire conversation, adapted below, here.

Tom Brokaw Do you think that we’re at a tipping point, that there will be some kind of a seismic change?

Steven LaTourette At this moment in time you have Republicans, and I happen to be one of them, that have the A rating with the NRA, that would be more than happy to sit down and begin to have the conversation about guns. But it has to be the right conversation […] that actually makes a difference and makes sure that it reduces violence and not just makes a political statement.

TB What befuddles you most of all as you look at this debate about the place of guns and violence and the Second Amendment in America?

Jens Ludwig One thing that’s really important to keep in mind about guns in America is that they are very concentrated and very sedentary. So about 10 percent of all the people in the United States own about 80 percent of the guns. They are mostly middle-class, middle-aged people living in rural areas, and they hold on to their guns for a long time. On the other hand, most of the people who engage in crime are teens and young adults, and most criminal careers are short. There’s always a new generation of young people who are trying to solve the problem fresh of getting their hands on guns. You could think about the United States being just like a giant bathtub filled with 300 million guns. We don’t need to worry about the entire tub, we just need to worry about the drain—that is, we just need to worry about the few million guns that are changing hands every year, and trying to divert them away from the high-risk hands.

Rahm Emanuel Fifty-eight percent of the guns that we pick up in crimes in the city of Chicago come from outside the state of Illinois. Because of what happens at gun shows and everything else, 40 percent of the guns that are traded or bought are not covered with any background five-day waiting period. That’s not a loophole, that’s an exemption.

SL It needs to be a national fix and there has to be federal preemption, because the patchwork of states or cities acting by themselves is not effective. I went to the University of Michigan because the drinking age was 18, and it was 21 in Ohio.

Steve Chapman What both opponents of “assault weapons” and makers of “assault weapons” do—and I use that term in quotes because it’s not a technical term—is to greatly exaggerate how different they are from other guns. They’re actually not. What distinguishes an assault weapon as it was defined in the 1994 law is not how fast it can fire, it’s not how lethal the ammunition is, it’s not how accurate it is. It’s mostly cosmetic things. They look like military weapons. If you’re talking about how they actually function, they’re no different from all sorts of ordinary hunting rifles.

The number of people who get killed with assault weapons compared to the number of murders we have in this country is very small. You’re far more likely—far more likely—to be killed by somebody with a knife than somebody with an assault weapon. Eighty percent of the gun homicides in this country are committed with handguns, which are not affected by the assault-weapons ban.

TB But would you concede that the worst of the carnage that we’ve had in the last year has come with assault weapons?

SC As a factual matter, it’s true. The question is, if you take those guns away, are you depriving people who want to do that amount of damage of weaponry that would be equally effective for their awful purposes? And the answer is, you’re not. There are plenty of guns that were available under the assault-weapons ban that would be available under the proposed one, that would be equally or more destructive than the weapons that they used in those mass shootings.

JL The United States is not an unusually violent country. That is a really important point to keep in mind. When you look at the United States and you compare it to, say, the United Kingdom, we do not have lots more assaults, lots more robberies, than places like the United Kingdom. The place where we’re really different is with respect to our homicide rate. And almost all of the difference in the homicide rate between the United States and the United Kingdom is driven by gun homicides.

TB If you had to design a kind of ideal reaction to what we’ve been through in the last year, would you see this just as an anomaly, or would you see it as something that’s going to require us to be much more proactive across the fronts that we’ve talked about here?

JL Closing the background-check exemption seems huge. In terms of making progress on this problem, that would be like winning the Super Bowl and the World Series and the NBA Finals all at once.

SC I think the important thing is to find ways to go after the criminals here. What I’m afraid we’re going to do with things like the assault-weapons ban, limits on magazines, is have an effect almost exclusively on people who are not criminals.

SL Closing the gun-show loophole I think is a no-brainer that you could get both parties to vote on. But what’s been left out of this discussion is untreated mental illness. Until we figure out how to reverse what happened in the ’80s, when basically they opened the doors to mental institutions and you have people wandering the streets in some instances, some people are not taking their prescribed medications, some people never get the medication, some people can’t afford the medication. Until we come to grips with that …

TB What about the NRA?

SC I think the NRA could be potentially valuable because they have a lot of expertise on technical issues. If they were willing to bring that knowledge to bear in a productive way, they could be helpful. I’m afraid the NRA is mostly interested in whipping up hysteria to raise money for itself and perpetuate itself rather than doing anything particularly productive. [...] I think one reason the NRA flourishes is because it addresses something that generally gets overlooked. There’s a sense that people in the big cities really do not understand why rural people are attached to their guns. There’s a cultural divide here and the NRA speaks for one side of that cultural divide.

RE There are cultural and lifestyle differences, which is why when you’re trying to have an impact on the safety of any community, it has to be focused on criminal access to guns.

SC The question that rural gun owners have is, Mr. Mayor, you’ve got teenage kids in Chicago killing each other with illegal guns, why is that a reason to infringe on the rights of people like me, who are not a danger to anybody? I think what politicians, leaders like yourself, have to do is find ways to go after the people who are misusing guns in a criminal way without burdening the people who are not.