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Will Colo. Shooting Change Gun Debate?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In a few minutes we will remember the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. She died yesterday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. We will talk with two other trailblazing women in the space program in just a few minutes and they'll tell us about her life and legacy.

But first we want to talk more about last week's tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, where a gunman, a former graduate student, is accused of killing 12 people and injuring more than 50 others in a shooting rampage at a midnight showing of a popular new film. Yesterday we talked with a psychiatrist and a veteran journalist about what we know about the mental profile of people who've committed these mass shootings in the past, such as the massacre at Columbine High School.

But today we want to turn to another obvious question that we think is on people's minds, which is: what about the role of guns in America's law and culture? We're also wondering what effect, if any, these kinds of tragedies have on the politics and policy around guns, so we called Paul Barrett. He is an assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, but you've previously heard him on this program talking about his book about the history of one of the most popular guns in America, the Glock.

His book is called "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" and, Paul, it was one of the four weapons used by the man who has been apprehended in connection with the shooting in Aurora. Actually, he had two Glocks. That's correct, isn't it?

PAUL BARRETT: Yes, it is. He had two .40 caliber Glock semiautomatic pistols and apparently some of his last shots were from a Glock handgun.

MARTIN: Now, you've written about this several times, and I think we should just go right to your point of view on this. You say that people - you've written this - people who know anything about firearms will sadly shake their heads. That's because the type of gun is a distraction. When it comes to weaponry and mass shootings, the issue to focus on is magazine capacity.

And then there's more bad news for gun control advocates. As a matter of practical politics and Second Amendment reality, nothing useful will happen on magazine capacity. So let's unpack those ideas.


MARTIN: At once. First of all, why is it that really there will be no real substantive discussion about gun control in the wake of this?

BARRETT: The shortest answer to that is that the most influential liberal-to-center politician in the country, Barack Obama, does not want to take the political risk to push gun control. When asked about this issue in the last 48 hours, his spokesman responded by saying we want to protect Second Amendment rights.

In other words, they're answering the question of will there be more gun control by actually mouthing the position of the NRA. So when the president is not behind it, Congress is not going to move.

MARTIN: What about an impact on public opinion? It seems that we hear a lot from, you know, columnists and influential thought leaders...


MARTIN: ...at a time like this, like the mayor of New York City, as we mentioned, Michael Bloomberg, who said let's get serious about this, folks. And you also hear families of victims often come forward and say it's time. What about public opinion on this?

BARRETT: Yes. Well, all of that of course is completely understandable and you can only sympathize with families of victims and well-intentioned public figures, but the hard facts are that popular support for stricter gun control has been decreasing, not increasing. Gallup polled late last year, and for the first time ever, a majority of their respondents, 53 percent, opposed an assault weapon ban.

They found a record low, only 26 percent, favoring a ban on handguns. And that's been going steadily down. So in fact, while we react with emotion and understandable compassion after these horrendous events, overall public opinion has been moving against stricter gun control. And the president and other Democrats know that, as do the Republicans.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is, if you don't mind...


MARTIN: ...hazarding a point of view about that?

BARRETT: I think there's a very straightforward reason for it. Gun control came together, coalesced as a movement in an environment in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, of sharply increasing violent crime across the United States, an environment in which it appeared that crime would be getting worse and worse year by year.

And people came up with the simplistic equation: more guns equals more crime. And in that environment, the argument that we needed to somehow restrict the dissemination or the prevalence of guns made sense to a lot of people. Then in the early 1990s something very strange and something very good happened, which is to say the long rise in criminal - in violent crime came to an end.

And since then, violent crime has been going down in the United States. We are a safer country overall. Big cities like, you know, your hometown Washington, my hometown New York, are much safer than they were 20 years ago. In that environment it is much harder to make the simple argument "more guns equals more violent crime" because violent crime is actually going down.

MARTIN: You know, the man accused of the shooting - and family members have requested that the media not continually say his name as a way to perhaps discourage other people from following in his footsteps to get additional glory and there seems no reason not to respect that at the moment - that he had all the guns in his possession including an AR15 rifle, a shotgun, and the two Glock handguns that we mentioned, and some 6,000 rounds of ammunition were all acquired legally.


MARTIN: And there are people who wonder how that is possible.

BARRETT: Well, it's possible because we have a fairly effective background check system where you have to be instantly checked against a computer database in order to acquire a gun. However, that approach does nothing for someone who has a clean record. It does nothing for the person who has not previously committed crimes but has snapped, has gone off the deep end, as the shooter in Colorado appears to have.

And this is why the danger of the insane, evil mass shooter is so hard to address with public policy when you have a society where there are plenty of guns available. It's very hard to figure out how to restrict the sale of new guns in a way that will inhibit a determined, diabolical killer like the movie theater killer in Colorado.

MARTIN: And particularly given that he seems to have had no contact with the criminal justice system.


MARTIN: Other than perhaps a traffic ticket, and no record of engagement with mental health authorities such that he would have come to the attention of authorities. Like there was no record of his ever having been involuntarily committed...


MARTIN: Or anything of that sort, to our knowledge at this point. Paul, just by way of understanding the scope of gun ownership in the United States, how many guns are currently estimated to be in private hands in the United States right now?

BARRETT: The main estimates are 250 million to 300 million guns in private hands, and it's worth noting also that that Gallup poll I referred to late last year found that 46 percent of American households reporting having at least one gun in the home.

MARTIN: Well, that would indicate that - with that number of guns, it would indicate that the households who do own guns generally own more than one, wouldn't it?

BARRETT: Yes. It absolutely does. That's quite common. It's not at all unusual to find that a gun enthusiast will own a half-dozen guns.

MARTIN: My guest is Paul Barrett. He is a veteran journalist and author of the book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He traces the history of one of the most popular handguns in the United States and also the history of our law and policy around gun ownership. That's one of the reasons we're talking to him now. He's answering some of the questions we think many people have about the role that guns and gun policy and gun laws played - perhaps played - in last week's tragedy in Aurora.

So, Paul Barrett, as I mentioned, you actually have an opinion about this and you've talked about the fact that you think that there really - it is not really politically realistic to expect there to be any real movement on gun ownership, per se, but you say that's the wrong issue anyway. Why do you say that we should focus on the magazine size?

BARRETT: Well, I think that the focus on the type of weapon is really kind of a distraction if you're concerned about these mass killing situations. What creates the danger for mass carnage is the type of ammunition. For example, the shotgun this man was carrying, which is normally seen as a benign weapon used to shoot, you know, birds and so forth and hunting - a shotgun is very, very deadly in close quarters.

Similarly, the military-style semiautomatic rifle he had, in and of itself, is no more or less dangerous than an ordinary deer-hunting rifle. What makes it so potent in this environment is the oversized capacity. The reports are that this man had a 100-round magazine, a drum-shaped magazine that would allow him to fire a bullet per second until it was emptied. Apparently, his gun jammed at a certain point. But I think if you want to focus on the lethality of weapons, the thing to focus on is ammunition capacity.

And there, if the society chose to do so, we could restrict ammunition capacity. In fact, from 1994 to 2004 there was a restriction on the sale of new large-capacity magazines that held more than 10 rounds. That restriction expired and I think it's politically completely unlikely that it will be reinstated, but that is a policy option that would make more sense than obsessing about assault weapons versus more conventional-looking rifles and so forth.

MARTIN: You also make the point that having more security guards at large public gathering places might actually be more effective.

BARRETT: Well...

MARTIN: Tell me about that. Tell me - I recognize that that's your opinion, but tell us why you think that.

BARRETT: Yeah. Well, it's just something that occurred to me because of the facts of the case in Aurora. The killer there would not have been able to pull off what he did if he were not able to simply stroll out of an emergency exit and then back into - through the same emergency exit armed to the teeth.

It occurred to me that if you just had a guy standing there with his arms crossed across his chest saying no one gets in or out of the emergency exits, you can't come into the emergency exit, this particular crime would not have occurred. That led me to the - remembering that every time I go to a professional sports event, people want to look inside my bag to see whether I have alcohol from the outside or, for that matter, a weapon.

And I'm not saying this would necessarily be a good idea, but it would certainly be an easier, less ideologically fraught idea. We could just - we could staff up on rent-a-cops.

I'm not sure I want to live in that society, but I don't see the cultural implications to it, and I think you don't need to get into the Second Amendment to wonder whether theater owners - if they want to secure their theaters - hire a few extra people. By the way, it would put a nice dent in our high unemployment rate too.

MARTIN: Well, one other issue we did not get a chance to talk about is that gun violence falls much more heavily on some people than others. It's worth mentioning that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, that the number of African-Americans who are murdered with firearms is many times that on average...

BARRETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...of the number of whites, even though in this particular incident, that seems to not be the case.

BARRETT: The mass killing environments are aberrational. Our day in, day out problem is gun homicide in...

MARTIN: In urban areas.

BARRETT: ...big city neighborhoods. Yes.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett is the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Paul Barrett, thank you.

BARRETT: You bet. Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.