NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After Newtown, the president promised to do everything in his power to reduce gun violence. He assigned Vice President Joe Biden to come up with a list of proposals which he received earlier this week. Today, the president took action. This morning at the Eisenhower executive office building, President Obama and Vice President Biden joined victims of the Newtown shooting, as well as children who wrote letters to the president about gun violence in the weeks following the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The president read from some of those letters and pointed out that gun violence continues.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun. Nine hundred in the past month. And every day we wait, that number will keep growing. So I'm putting forward a specific set of proposals, based on the work of Joe's taskforce, and in the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality.
Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil; if there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try and I'm going to do my part.
CONAN: A few minutes later, the president signed a set of 23 executive actions, including a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence. He also called for funding for more research.
OBAMA: And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it. And Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. We don't benefit from ignorance.
We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.
CONAN: The president emphasized that executive action is no substitute for action from members of Congress, and he called on Congress to pass specific proposals right away. First, he asked Congress to require universal background checks for anyone buying a gun. He called that measure common sense. Secondly, he called on Congress to restore a ban on military-style assault weapons and a 10-round limit for magazines.
Lastly, President Obama called on Congress to help law enforcement do its job, confirm Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and help local governments put more cops back on the job. The president took care to reiterate his respect for the Second Amendment and for what he called our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen, but he also warned of critics who will try to paint his proposed reforms as an attack on liberty.
OBAMA: There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publically warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty. Not because that's true, but because they want to jet up fear, or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they'll do everything they can to block any common sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.
The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their membership says this time must be different; that this time we must do something to protect our communities and our kids.
CONAN: The president ended with the story of one of the Newtown victims, Grace McDonald. Her parents, Lynn and Chris, were at the Eisenhower executive office building this morning.
OBAMA: Grace was seven years old when she was struck down, just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I'm told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of becoming a painter. And so just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one her paintings. And I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her.
And most of all, I think about how when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now - for Grace, for the 25 other innocent children and devoted educators who had so much left to give; for the men and women in big cities and small towns that fall victim to senseless violence each and every day; for all the Americans who are counting on us to keep them safe from harm. Let's do the right thing.
Let's do the right thing for them and for this country that we love so much. Thank you. Let's sign these orders.
CONAN: President Obama, earlier today. Well, we've heard specifics. A little more than a month after Newtown, which, if any of the president's proposals and actions, might make a real difference? We'll get to phone calls a bit later in the program, but you can send emails now. The address is Talk@NPR.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us here in Studio 3A. And Scott, always good to have you on the program.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
CONAN: The president said he's going to put all of this weight behind these proposals and they do not lack for ambition.
HORSLEY: That's right. But he's also realistic and said his way alone is not going to be enough to carry the day. He knows that, in particular, the legislative proposals, the pieces of this gun violence plan that require Congressional action, it's going to be an uphill battle. And he said this will not happen unless the American people demand it. And not just, he said, the usual suspect - meaning liberals in urban areas who've long been supportive of more gun control measures.
Certainly, people like Michael Bloomberg are important in this effort, but he says it's going to take NRA members themselves. It's going to take people in rural neighborhoods where hunting and gun ownership is a very deep-seated part of the culture. Those folks need to also be in touch with their lawmakers, if the president's - if the legislative piece of the president's agenda's going to be put into force.
CONAN: And there could be some resistance to even some of those executive orders. Yes, the president has the power to do those things, but the Congress has a voice, too.
HORSLEY: There's already been suggestions that some of these could be subject to litigation. For example, one of the things the president talked about is freeing up government researchers to do more investigation on the public health aspects of gun violence. It's a testament to the power of the gun lobby that until now the CDC, for example, has not even been able to go out and do research on gun violence the way they might do research on, say...
CONAN: The flu.
HORSLEY: ...the flu, exactly. And, you know, if you think about, for example, the way that the food safety agencies respond when there's a food-borne illness outbreak, we certainly would not allow, say, a spinach farmer to say, well, you can't trace the suspect spinach back to me in the way that we've made it very difficult to trace suspect guns back to gun dealers. So just the fact that the president has said we're going to free up government researchers to investigate, because he said ignorance is not our friend in this effort, that's likely to be tested as well.
CONAN: And the Congress, well, they can't defy an executive order. They could defund the National Institutes of Health.
HORSLEY: In fact, that's what they've tried to do. Congress has said the CDC cannot conduct research that would advocate gun control. Now, that's had a very chilling effect, and in point of fact there's really basically been no research done. What the president's lawyers have said is, well, it's not advocacy to simply do research into the causes of gun violence.
And of course he's also calling for some funding to look particularly into the impact of the entertainment industry and violent video games. And those are of course things that the gun lobby likes to sort of deflect attention onto. And so he's throwing a bone there, saying some of this research ought to be into those areas as well.
CONAN: Well, what about the suggestion, the part of the congressional piece that he said enjoyed the support of so much of the American people. And that's for closing the so-called gun show loophole. Some 40 percent of the guns that are sold in this country are not subject to background checks because they're sold either at gun shows or sold privately.
HORSLEY: Yeah, and gun show loophole is really kind of a misnomer because of course this is any after-market sale by anyone other than a federally licensed gun dealer. And as you say, it's about four in 10 gun sales. One administration official said, you know, what if you went to the airport and 60 percent of the passengers had to go through the TSA metal detectors but the other 40 percent just waltzed onto the plane? We wouldn't think that was a very reasonable approach.
So what the proponents of this idea are saying is let's make every gun buyer subject to the same kind of background check. There's some support for this from the licensed retailers, because after all they're sort of at a competitive disadvantage if they're forced to do background checks and others are not. But this is likely to meet a lot of resistance. Opponents will see this as a step in the direction of a national gun registry, which they're of course very much opposed to.
Even though this has very broad public support as a practical matter, it could be difficult to carry out.
CONAN: And another of his executive orders today was to nominate Todd Jones to be the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. There's not been a director for the past six years. President Obama hasn't nominated one to begin with. Now he does. Of course that has to be approved by Congress.
HORSLEY: He did nominate one, who never got much of a hearing, never got a hearing at all, because he said some things which suggested he was going to run afoul of the gun rights groups. But right, that agency has been without a fulltime confirmed director for half a dozen years now. This is one of the things that Mayor Bloomberg's group has been urging the president to do. In fact, they wanted him to go further and use a recess appointment while Congress was on their holiday break to put somebody in charge at ATF. The president didn't do that. He's going to try to get one confirmed through the ordinary Senate process.
CONAN: Scott Horsley, NPR White House correspondent, stay with us if you will. We're talking about President Obama's plans to reduce gun violence. What, if anything, do you think that's proposed today might make a difference? Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, you can join the conversation also at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Earlier today President Obama presented a set of executive actions and proposals to reduce gun violence in this country. Ahead of his announcement the National Rifle Association released a video on its website.
(SOUNDBITE OF NRA VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes but he's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security. Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours.
CONAN: Around the country lawmakers have been responding to the president's proposals. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said, House committees with jurisdiction will review these recommendations. If the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook. Rather than sweeping measures that make it harder for responsible, law-abiding citizens to purchase firearms, we should focus on the root causes of gun violence and keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus responded saying that President Obama series of gun control measures amount to an executive power grab that may please his political base but will not solve the problems at hand. The president also received some support from E. Patricia Llodra, First Selectwoman of Newtown, Connecticut: I truly believe that the will of the people makes a difference and I'm calling on everyone to have the courage to stand up and help us make that difference. We should never again visit a tragedy such as we had in Newtown, Connecticut. It's time for us to make a change.
We want to hear from you by email right now. Which of any of the president's executive actions and proposals could make a real difference? Talk@npr.org is our email address. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Scott Horsley, NPR White House correspondent, is here with us in Studio 3A. Also joining us now, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And Mara, always good to have you on the program.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.
CONAN: And we've seen Congress split on a number of issues. The Republican majority split badly on the fiscal cliff deal, split badly again on the Sandy relief bill. Are they going to split again on gun control?
LIASSON: I don't think so. I think this is the exception to that rule. I don't think they're going to have to, especially in the House. I think what you hear from Republicans today is, after you, Alfonse; we'll wait for Harry Reid in the Senate to do something and then we'll take a look at it. That's pretty much what John Boehner said today. He said we're going to wait for the Senate to pass something, then we're going to take a look at it. And in the meantime our appropriate committees will look at the gun issue and see what we want to do.
And there are a lot of Republicans that are very confident that they won't get the comprehensive gun control package that the president proposed out of the Senate and they're never going to have to take this vote. Although there are some districts in - that are represented by Republican's in the House, especially in the Northeast, where the sea change in national public opinion on guns would affect them. It might not affect them enough to actually take votes that will break with the NRA.
So I think Republicans, in the House, at least, are feeling, you know, not pressured right now.
CONAN: And in the Senate the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, a life member of the National Rifle Association, said he thought even if a bill did get out of the Senate, it would not get out of the House. Given that, he said, his priority's going to be immigration.
LIASSON: Yeah, now, that's really something, where he says I don't even want to bother to try because it won't pass the House. I think something is going to have to pass the Senate. There are many people who think that a universal background check or a ban on the big ammunition clips could actually pass. Nobody gives the assault weapons ban much of a chance, but those two other things, especially universal background checks, might be able to get through. I think for Harry Reid to say I'm not going to even bother, I think that's not going to hold as a strategy.
CONAN: Scott Horsley, again we saw the president say I am going to put my entire weight behind this. Is he going to swing that campaign apparatus behind this the way he swung the campaign apparatus behind the fiscal cliff negotiations?
HORSLEY: I think he's going to try, but it's a different thing to try to get legislation passed than to try to put your candidate in office. I mean it's a binary thing to put your guy into office. It's a much more challenging thing to get your supporters to actually wade through the morass of legislation and keep the pressure on lawmakers until they take action.
CONAN: Is the president going to be staging those kind of campaign-style events in places that might be friendly?
HORSLEY: I think so. I mean I think the president is sincere when he says he's going to do his part on this. And I think they'll certainly make an effort. And maybe that is just playing to their own base, but I think the president wants to make a difference in this area. He is doing what he can through the administrative measures, the executive measures.
But if he holds a few of those public rallies, if he tries to put the pressure on and doesn't make any - doesn't have a meaningful impact, especially in the Democratic-controlled Senate, then I think at some point he's going to have to say, okay, how much political capital do I squander in this effort? And when is it time to maybe turn to something where I have a better chance, like immigration?
CONAN: And Mara, that's going to be a calculation that's going to be reviewed hourly, I would think.
LIASSON: Yeah. Now, don't forget, this was not something - this was a late and involuntary addition to the president's agenda. This wasn't on the list until Newtown happened. But the White House says he can walk and chew gum at the same time. He can push for this. He can push for this in a way that won't hurt him no matter what the outcome is. If he can be on the right side of public opinion and fight hard for this and isolate the House Republicans as the people who block this, I think that he's not going to lose a lot of political capital.
Immigration has a momentum of its own right now. It's not - it's something that, we've had an incredible sea change on immigration, the politics of immigration. So I think that has its own kind of momentum and logic to it. On the fiscal stuff it's always going to be a hard, difficult fight. And it's going to be one crisis after another. But I think between now and the end of March, guns, immigration and the debt ceiling, the CR and sequester are pretty much what we're going to be talking about.
CONAN: And the CR is the continuing resolution...
LIASSON: The continuing resolution to let the government continue operating.
HORSLEY: And while the president may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, it's not entirely clear that members of Congress can do even one of those things at a time.
CONAN: In the meantime, Republicans and the members of the House are on a retreat in Virginia, Mara Liasson, as they look for - well, as they look for some way to define themselves other than against the president.
LIASSON: Well, they need to draw a new line in the sand because the lines they drew before they kept on rubbing out and crossing. So they have to figure out where it's going to be. I mean for the fiscal cliff they tried and failed. And for the debt ceiling they are getting a tremendous amount of dissension about whether or not it's a good idea to say they'd rather see the government default if they don't get the kind of spending cuts they want.
And if it's not going to be on the debt ceiling, well, then it could be on sequester. And you hear a lot of Republicans saying that they are now fine with the sequester. They'd rather see all those cuts happen.
CONAN: The sequester, by the way, is that across-the-board haircut on all discretionary spending.
LIASSON: Including defense. And the White House was counting on Republicans to find the defense cuts so onerous that - and unthinkable that they'd come to a compromise. And now you hear a lot of Republicans saying, well, we'd rather take the defense cuts than have another, you know, revenue-raising tax hike or some kind of compromise that doesn't cut spending enough.
CONAN: And you mentioned that the House is unlikely to take up any of these big issues on gun reform, the assault weapons ban, the magazines and the universal background check, until they get something from the Senate. Are they going to push back on some of these executive orders?
LIASSON: Well, that's another question. There are some conservative, ardent Second Amendment House Republicans who say that these executive orders are unconstitutional and they're an executive power grab and they could push back against them. But I don't know really what they can do. They could - I supposed they could try to defund some of these agencies. That is something that they could try, but I can't imagine that getting through the Senate.
CONAN: So it's going to be a lot of sound and music and again a big round of symbolism on both sides and not a lot done?
LIASSON: Well, I think, look, these executive orders will do something in terms of the data sharing. And it's possible that one or two things could get through. You also don't know what's going to happen. This was driven by an unexpected event. There could be more.
CONAN: And Scott, that was the president's appeal at the end of his speech earlier today from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, to say this is not going to happen unless members of the NRA make it clear to their membership that they want it to happen, that the American public, not just from Manhattan and from San Francisco, but everybody, from some of those rural states too, writes into their member of Congress and to their senator, makes it clear this time has to be different.
HORSLEY: Yeah, and you know, Vice President Biden talked about one of the young men who was in the audience today, a survivor of the shooting at Virginia Tech. And he said he's not there because of what happened to him but because what happened to him keeps happening again and again. And Newtown, tragic as it was, was not even the first mass shooting on this president's watch. And we heard after the shooting that involved Congresswoman Giffords that we needed to do something about this. Nothing much happened.
We've had other mass shootings like this. The question is whether Newtown, with the - such young victims, really makes a sea change in public attitudes. But short of that, I think it could easily recede without dramatic changes in policy.
CONAN: We want to hear from members of our audience as well. You've heard the proposals outlined today by the president. Which if any of those could make a real difference? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Deborah(ph). Deborah's on the line with us from Naples in Florida.
DEBORAH: Yeah. Hi. I listen to your show all the time, and the other day I was listening to Terry Gross and found out that the CDC has been prohibited from releasing data regarding gun violence deaths. Why? I don't understand this.
CONAN: Could you give us a background on that, Scott?
HORSLEY: Right. And it's - really what they're - what they were prohibited from doing was conducting research into gun violence that would be - that would constitute advocacy for gun control. What the researchers sort of took that as meaning was research about guns is probably a no-no, and of course that was done under pressure from the gun lobby. The Congress said there will be no funding for this kind of research.
What the president did in his executive action today was to take the position of his lawyers, which is, look, there's nothing about research that constitutes advocacy. Therefore you can still have funding to do research into the causes of gun violence.
This is a public health problem. Like any other public health problems, it shouldn't be off-limits. As he said, we don't benefit from ignorance. It's in no one's interest - except, of course, the gun lobby's interest - to minimize what we know about this problem. So he actually is taking some action on that.
CONAN: They were also, in the process running up to these announcements today, that was conducted by Vice President Biden, more than 100 scientists from universities in the United States lobbied the vice president to ask him to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to once again fund research into public health aspects of guns. So Deborah, I guess that's your answer.
HORSLEY: So the president's both...
DEBORAH: It is. I do want to...
HORSLEY: ...untying their hands, but also asking for more money next year, in next year's budget, for additional research.
CONAN: Go ahead, Deborah. I'm sorry.
DEBORAH: Yeah. I would also like to see statistics regarding suicide by gun - people shooting themselves in the head. I feel that that's a really, really big issue, and I don't know if that information is out there, and I think it should be done. And that's all I have to say, and thank you for your time today.
CONAN: Deborah, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about the announcements made by President Obama today, his proposals to reduce gun violence. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Our guests with us here in Studio 3A: White House correspondent Scott Horsley, national political correspondent Mara Liasson. I just want to, Mara, for you to put this controversy in some political context. There was, of course, an assault weapons ban - a limit on capacity of magazines or the ammunition clips - that was enacted back in the '90s, and Democrats, shortly afterwards, came to the conclusion this was very bad politics.
LIASSON: It is a piece of received wisdom in the Democratic Party that the ban on assault weapons is why they lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994. You know, it's hard - it certainly was one of the reasons, but it's spooked them ever since, and it's just been a bad issue. The Democrats just don't - didn't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
That ban did expire. And to tell you the truth, I'd be interested in trying to remember exactly why it was written with an expiration date and not permanently, but it did expire. And this package of proposals that Obama - President Obama presented today is the first time since then that any Democratic president has tried something so sweeping on gun legislation.
HORSLEY: And I think the sunset provision in the assault weapons ban, like some of the loopholes that allowed gunmakers to get around that, were basically just ways to water it down to make it palatable.
LIASSON: Just to buy votes, just to get votes. Yeah.
HORSLEY: Yeah. And of course the fellow who was - helped to shepherd that effort was then-Senator Joe Biden.
CONAN: And Mara, one of the things we keep hearing about the make-up of the Congress is that due to redistricting we have ever more liberal Democrats and ever more conservative Republicans. Those Blue Dog Democrats from places like West Virginia that would have been put into a quandary to vote for an assault weapons ban, there are fewer of those.
LIASSON: There are fewer of them. But if you look at the Democrats in the Senate who are up in 2014, there are a lot of them for whom a vote on gun control is very, very difficult. And that's one of the reasons that Harry Reid is so cautious. It's not just for him, even though he was endorsed by the NRA and, you know, has a history of pro-gun positions. But it's still difficult for Democrats.
And for Republicans, what's happened to the Republican - in terms of redistricting and just the way that voters have sorted themselves out in this country, Republicans live in a kind of hermetically sealed redistricted universe where they really only have to - many of them only have to worry about a primary challenge, not a general election. So this is a very, very, you know, difficult vote for them.
But there's no doubt that the politics of this are as difficult as ever. I think Sandy Hook did change some things, but maybe not enough to get the bulk of this through.
CONAN: When we come back after a short break, we'll be talking about some of the things that Sandy Hook may have changed, including people's opinion, public opinion. A couple of things - to get an answer for Deborah for her question just a few minutes ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they say 55 percent of gun deaths are the result of suicide.
We also want to hear from members of our audience. What, if anything, the president proposed today might make a difference? This is an email that we got from Christina(ph): I'm a conservative Republican and understand the historical basis for the Second Amendment. I think it's important and I think responsible, law-abiding adults should be able to own guns.
However, after a relative bought an assault rifle as a gift for his 10-year-old son, I felt compelled to do some soul-searching. I looked for myself at the - I looked for myself at the U.N. reported murder rates and gun violence; I was surprised how high the U.S. is rated. I think we can't ignore that we have a problem. Of course we should look into better mental health care, and yes, I know we can't get guns out of the hands of the criminals that already have them, but seriously, can't we start today by not allowing even more on the street?
This an email we have from Ryan in Charlottesville: I'm an NRA member who voted for Obama in 2008 but closing the so-called gun show loophole has me concerned. Is the administration proposing to use the information gathered during these background checks to establish a national database? This is a big issue for me, and the establishment of a national gun registry/database would cause me to start voting Republican.
We want to hear from other members of our audience. Again, which of the proposals outlined by the president today could make a difference, if any? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to thank national political correspondent Mara Liasson for her time today. Also, Scott Horsley, good to see you here in Studio 3A. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: Today, the president unveiled plans to reduce gun violence in the U.S. - a combination of executive actions and proposals for Congress. It includes provisions to close loopholes on background checks, ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, make schools safer and mental health services more accessible. We want to hear from you what, if anything, do you think might make a difference that you heard today. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. After shootings like the one in Sandy Hook, Aurora and Oak Creek, researchers polled the public hoping to document what, if any, affect the violence has had on public opinion. Joining us here in Studio 3A is Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center - and good to have you with us today.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And one of the most controversial things that President Obama proposed is an assault weapon ban. Has public opinion changed since the shooting in Newtown?
DIMOCK: Well, we haven't seen a big change in the balance of public opinion on gun control. We've had a slim majority who support further gun control in the country, but a very substantial number who continue to say that protecting the rights of Americans to own guns should be the priority. When it comes to an assault weapons ban, most of the polling that we've seen in our own polls, as well as other polls around the nation, have found majorities who would favor bans on assault weapons or semi-automatic weapons. But again, not a sea change of opinion before and after these shootings.
CONAN: Even Newtown with - as bad as it was.
DIMOCK: That's right. I mean Newtown really struck a lot of people very deeply, but it didn't necessarily shift the balance of opinion on these issues too strongly in one direction or another. What we find in our polls is somewhere upwards of 80 percent of Americans say they feel strongly about the gun control issue on both sides - so there really aren't a lot of folks in the middle who are really going to move from one side to the other.
CONAN: And so there are certain policies, abortion might be another one, where people have their minds made up and events aren't going to sway them much one way the other.
DIMOCK: I think that's a fair way of saying it. Yeah.
CONAN: The president did say that there was public opinion to support his call to close that so-called gun show loophole, to require universal background checks; is he correct?
DIMOCK: That's right. I mean our polls have seen over 80 percent of Americans who support the idea of expanding background checks to private sales and gun show sales, and that crosses partisan lines. You' re getting around 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats and independents who would favor that.
CONAN: It's interesting. We got this email from Adrianne: As a gun store owner, I fully support the concept of universal background checks for all firearm sales or transfers as long as it does not create a federal registry of individual gun owners. The only way to avoid that would be to have private-party transfers handled by federally licensed dealers. In such a case the seller and buyer would go to a local dealer. The seller would consign the gun to the dealer who logs the gun into their ATF-required tracking system and then transfers the gun to the buyer at the party's agreed-upon price, after the buy passes a background check. Information on both buyer and seller remain with the dealer as required by ATF regulations and is available to the government should the guns subsequently be evidenced in a crime. The U.S. routinely conduct these sorts of transfers for a standard fee of about 15 to 25 dollars.
So an interesting background information there. But she also mentions that idea of a federal registry of individual gun owners. Is that another issue that you polled on?
DIMOCK: It is. We asked people if they would favor or oppose establishing a federal government database of all firearms to be able to track where firearms are. That was not as universally supported as doing more universal background checks. But still, 67 percent of people in our poll would favor the government establishing that kind of database, but it's much more partisan in the reaction, with Republicans being much more opposed than Democrats.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some more response. We want to hear from callers. Which of any other proposals you heard from the president today might make a difference: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's see if we can start with Jerry, and Jerry's on the line with us from Ehrhardt in South Carolina.
JERRY: Yes, Neal. How you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
JERRY: I'm an over 50-year, life member of NRA. We've seen these proposals come down the pike time after time, such as putting numbers on individual rounds of ammunition. They're not workable. Sandy Hook and these other shootings are tragic. We must do something. There's an opportunity to do something. The problem is we're getting wrapped around the axle about sold weapons, which are actually used, numerically, in very few crimes. They're highly visible. They shake people up. They're frightening and they're terrible. And it should be stopped.
But the majority of crimes and gun crimes are not with sold weapons. That's the problem. We should use - we should not lose this potential opportunity to get something done. For instance, I certainly favor universal background checks if it's handled correctly, as you had just mentioned. Mental screening, that's the problem.
I mean, everybody within the sound of my voice is probably familiar with a couple of people that are a little flaky and, gee, we'd feel guilty if they went out and killed a bunch of people. But, you know, there's no process in place to handle these people.
CONAN: As the president said today, though, it is statistically quite true that those with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of a shooting than perpetrators.
JERRY: Quite possibly. I'm sure he's correct. However, the point is that certainly when people go out and do this who are mentally ill, I would - I'm not a psychologist, but certainly, wouldn't you agree that somebody who goes out and kills people is mentally ill?
CONAN: Well, there's a long debate about that. Anybody who fires a weapon at somebody else is - then you could never enforce the death penalty, because that person would be innocent by reason of insanity, correct?
JERRY: Let me raise something very quickly. Recently - I don't know where. It was years ago, but some reporter got a hold of a guy somewhat - it's been years ago, but he actually got this shooter on the phone in the middle of a gun crime where he was killing people, and he said: Why are you doing this? The guy said, I don't know. I'm busy. Of course, he was busy killing people, and he hung up.
CONAN: All right. Jerry...
JERRY: Perhaps these people don't know, either.
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JERRY: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Let's see if - there's an email. This is from Stephanie: In response to the fear of a national gun owner database, why would anyone be against that? Vehicles are registered. What's the difference? I think driving a motor vehicle has always been described in the law as a privilege and not a right. The Second Amendment makes a difference there. And the Second Amendment, people feel passionately about that, do they not?
DIMOCK: That's right. I mean, you know, I think that when you get to the idea of a database, it does strike some people as an overreach of government and a concern that some people have about the government's rule in regulating guns and gun ownership in people's private opportunities in that way. But the caller's call reminds me, too, that owning guns or being a member of the NRA is not all a black-and-white issue with respect to this. A lot of people have mixed views.
There are plenty of gun owners who favor further restrictions. There are plenty of non-gun owners who are concerned about further restrictions. I think sometimes there's tendency to think that everybody is either on one side or the other, depending on whether they have guns or not. And that's not the case at all.
CONAN: Joining us now is David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, professor of health policy. He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Good to have you with us today.
DAVID HEMENWAY: Thank you.
CONAN: And as you heard, President Obama outlined a number of proposals, one, to expand the use of background checks to make those universal. Based on your research, would that help?
HEMENWAY: I think so. It's hard to know exactly, because we've never had universal background checks nationally. We have universal background checks in a number of states such as California, and the suggested evidence is that this affects gun trafficking because it's harder to get guns in - illegal guns in California. But right now, you can just go to Arizona or other states to buy guns without a background check.
So I think a universal background check could have a big effect. And almost all other developed countries, they have universal background checks. And they also have very few of the gun problems that we have.
CONAN: What about the proposal on the ban of assault weapons and the large-capacity magazines, more than 10 rounds? There was, of course, for 10 years, such a ban in effect.
HEMENWAY: Right. It's important to step back and try to understand the problems of - that these laws are trying to address, because in the United States, we have lots of guns, and so we'll have various problems with guns. And we have problems about suicides, about accidents, about mass shootings, about gang homicides and intimate partner violence and road rage and so forth. And the assault weapons ban and the high-capacity magazine has really focused a lot on the mass shootings, because, as this caller mentioned, only about 2 percent of the homicides in the United States are due to these assault weapons.
So a problem with trying to analyze what happened with the assault weapons ban is that there are so many things grandfathered at the beginning of the ban, and then there is also some loopholes. So you wouldn't expect much of an effect on mass shootings until near the end of the ban. Mass shootings are a pretty rare event, so it's hard to determine whether the ban would have been effective. And then suddenly, the ban ended.
So we can't really see if the - we can sort of assume that the ban did not have any effect, certainly in the first five years of the ban. What we do know is from other countries, such as Australia, which had a massive buyback of all their assault weapons, that seemed to have a very beneficial effect. They use to have mass shootings there almost every year. And since the ban, for the last 16 years, there have been no mass killings.
CONAN: Here's an email to that point from Eric in Tucson: After a horrific mass shooting in Australia, they not only banned sale of whole classes of guns, but made possession illegal. There was a huge buyback program. They reduced the arsenal in the nation. Since then, there hasn't been a mass shooting. I think he's correct about that. Buyback programs, there have been those locally in this country, David Hemenway. I think there was one in Tucson just the other day. But there's nothing in the president's proposals for that on a national scale. Some 700,000 weapons, I think, were bought back in Australia.
HEMENWAY: That's right. And another probably 250,000 were just given back. The - I don't think that's on the agenda here. And what we know about the voluntary buybacks is that they may have some effect that's hard to measure - again, because the effects would be small. But they were buying - typically buying back weapons which are not typically used in street crime. They're buying back other types of weapons, and so it could have a small effect on suicide or accidents. But we don't expect the big effect of the voluntary buybacks on the shootings in the inner city.
CONAN: David Hemenway is the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Also with us Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Some more email response, this from John: I'm fascinated by this debate. I'm a very strong proponent of the Second Amendment. I support the right to bear arms 100 percent for every reason the NRA does. However, I think it is entirely reasonable to ban handguns. Why do we allow them? This is not the Wild West anymore, where you need to be on the quick draw.
Is there, in your polling, Mr. Dimock, any distinction between long guns, as it will, and handguns?
DIMOCK: You know, it's interesting, because the debate has shifted very far away from handgun control over the past two or three decades. Gallup has been polling on the issue of handgun control since the 1950s, and as recently as 1993. So in Bill Clinton's first term in office, you had as many as 42 percent of Americans who favored banning the possession of handguns, except by police and other authorized officials.
Now that's fallen down as low as 24 percent, even in the wake of these shootings. Now, these shootings had nothing to do with handguns. And I think it gets to the visibility of general crime, street crime that might involve handguns and these more shocking, kind of, mass shooting events that tend to be dealing with different kinds of weapons that are really grabbing the public's attention. So right now, you see far more support for restricting things like semi-automatic and assault weapons - those kinds of terms - than handguns, even though I think most people would say handguns are causing more deaths.
CONAN: There's also a definitional aspect on the automatic - excuse me - the assault weapons ban, so-called. This is an email from Johan, who points out that fully automatic weapons are already banned. However, he says: I do not support an assault weapon ban, because there's no such thing as an assault weapon. The guns that President Obama is talking about banning are just guns that look scary. They are functionally the same as semi-automatic hunting rifles. They are not fully automatic weapons, which are already illegal.
And, David Hemenway, he's got a point. The large-capacity magazines, some argue, are more to the point. But the previous law, the old ban said if it has a pistol grip, it has a - it is an assault-type weapon. If it doesn't, even though it has the same function, it isn't.
HEMENWAY: Yes. It was very difficult for the people who wrote the law to say what's an assault weapon and what's not, exactly. And basically, it ended up being guns that look scary are assault weapons. And I think what most researchers think the possible effect of the law would have been through this high-capacity magazine ban. And that's a very different thing. And that's much easier to determine what is and what isn't a high-capacity magazine.
CONAN: This email from Lisa in Prairie Village, Kansas: As I write this, I have 12-gauge shotgun within arm's reach. I live in a relatively safe suburb of Metro Kansas City. I've lived most of my life in the country, years ago thought nothing of having a .22 rifle propped by the front door with two banana clips on it, taped together with electrical tape. We surprised a burglar once and exchanged gunfire. A close relative two years ago had to shoot a drug-crazed intruder out the back of her house, who spent 15 minutes bashing his way in. The sheriff's department couldn't get there on time. That said, I think banana clips and semi-auto military firearms are just silly. I approve their being limited.
This from Pam in Springfield, Missouri: My son is mentally ill. I want thorough background checks and registration to prevent his access to weapons. On his meds, he's reasonable - off is another issue. It is too easy for him to get weapons. He's not familiar with them, so I hope he doesn't look at them as a first option if hallucinating.
And improving mental health access, the mental health aspect, Michael Dimock, is this something that is part of your polling at all?
DIMOCK: A bit. I mean, I think nobody is against the idea of better screening for mental health or trying to provide mental health services. I think the devil's in details on this as we move forward is a policy issue: how to do it in a way that doesn't infringe on people's privacy, their medical privacy and other areas that people will be comfortable with. Right now, this is sort of an abstract conversation that people are on board with.
CONAN: And here's an email from Fran in Beaufort, South Carolina: I'm a 62-year-old female gun owner and ex-law enforcement. I believe in the right to bear arms, but there are limitations to everything. Freedom of speech has restrictions. One cannot insight riots or threaten another person. As an ardent gun owner, I support background checks and the use of magazines and assault - and the ban on magazines and assault weapons. It just makes sense.
And this is from Ken: Doesn't the sharing of mental health conflict with the HIPAA laws with medical records? And again, I think that was one of the proposals the president made today, to take a look at those HIPAA regulations to see if they could be relaxed in that respect, and that would - might make a difference.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
CONAN: Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time. And I'm sure this is a subject - there would be more polls and more information there at Harvard. Michael Dimock is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and David Hemenway is director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Michael Dimock joined us here in Studio 3A, and David Hemenway was with us from member station WBUR in Boston. We thank them both for their time. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.