Eugene Robinson Live: The GOP's crime against voters

Jul 24, 2012

Robinson discussed his latest columns and political news.

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Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion. Today's column is about the Aurora massacre and all the things we're not going to do to prevent the next one. The simple thing -- but we won't do it -- is to come to our senses about gun control. At a minimum, an assault weapons ban would prevent some of these spree killings and mitigate others. Not a peep from President Obama or Mitt Romney. We also need to look for ways to better identify and treat young men (it's always young men) who are spinning out of control in a potentially volent manner. That's necessary, but hard -- and will take some time. For now, we should do the obvious. Even if the National Rifle Association doesn't like it. Let's begin.

Liked your column, but object to this comment: " There is no simple way to identify the handful of individuals who are quietly spinning out of control, unseen behind closed doors." Over and over we know exactly who is spinning out of control - but our civil commitment laws were gutted in the 60s and 70s, and our psychiatric hospitals were closed as deinstitutionalization and shifting costs to the federal government became the goals throughout the 80s and 90s. I bet we'll hear soon from the family that probably tried and tried to get Holmes help. The issue isn't secrecy or funding (the VA tech shooter's professor's tried to get him committed). The issue is that we don't civilly commit anymore and we have no where to involuntarily treat those who won't help themselves. The problem can be solved, but first it has to be admitted.

You're essentially right, except in your one assumption that Holmes' family saw him spiraling out of control. That may or may not be the case. Quite often, the trouble cases can be spotted -- but not always. There are millions of quiet, slightly weird young men out there who will never commit mass murder. But you're absolutely right that we've swung so far away from civil commitment that institutions and parents are often powerless to help. For example: If the university saw signs of instability, could they have legally told the parents? I doubt it because of privacy laws.

In an era where there are cameras everywhere and heightened intrusions into our daily lives in the name of security, it seems a little strange the NRA can still get away with claiming that the least little gun law is a soul-crushing assault on their freedoms. I can't take a full tube of toothpaste on an airplane, but I can go to a gun show and buy enough assault weapons to form a smallish death squad, no questions asked? That's absurd to the point of being obscene. It's time we challenged the politicians who kowtow to these extremists. I have no problem with sane, law-abiding people owning guns of the type they can hunt with or that make them feel secure in their homes. But if you're not planning mass murder, or reselling arms to Mexican drug lords, you can wait a week for a background check and give up the Glock.


Dear Mr. Robinson, According to the NYT, "With a few keystrokes, the suspect...ordered 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for an assault rifle and 350 shells for a 12-gauge shotgun..." None of this evoked interest. Nor were any requirements in place for large ammunition orders to be reported to authorities. The issue at hand is access to high powered weapons (not the kind of weapons used typically by hunters -- the NRA is happy to conflate the two) and massive rounds of ammunition and large magazines. Today we talk about this in terms of individual needless slaughters carried out by disturbed young men. Is there not the possibility that in the future we will talk about this in the context of a terrorist act? What is to stop a band of domestic terrorists from taking advantage of the virtually non-existent controls on arming oneself to the teeth? Here is the question: Why is unlimited access to powerful weapons and unlimited ammunition not an issue of national security rather than "gun control" or "gun rights"? We are happy to empower TSA to confiscate our toiletries, but we (or, the NRA and the politicians who worship at their money bags) block ATF and police forces from managing access to weapons and ammunition that are just a mouse click away for potential terrorists. It makes no sense.

I believe it's obviously a matter of national security. Take a survey of police chiefs across the nation and they'll agree. The Smith and Wesson rifle that Holmes took into the theater -- and that jammed, luckily -- would have been covered by the old assault weapons ban. That legislation was in effect and the republic did not fall. Can't we at least reinstate that law as a small first step?

Almost immediately after the Aurora shooting, headlines appeared at your own paper's website, and others, to the effect that "Nothing Will Change" and that the "Shooting Won't Have an Effect." Why does our media not rally Americans who don't want assault weapons and huge murder-magazines in any civilian hands? Why do your colleagues simply accept that nothing will change? And why don't Democrats, who get punished for being the anti-gun party, act like the anti-gun party for a change?

Our job is to report on the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. I wish I believed we would take action on either front -- guns and mental health -- but I have to be pessimistic. If the shooting of a sitting member of Congress didn't spark action, what on earth will?

A man walks into a crowded movie theater (after rigging his apartment with explosive) carrying an assault weapon (essentially the same weapon that is used by the military), a shotgun, two pistols, smoke grenades, a gas mask, and military grade body armor. We get plenty of condolences and prayers, but what we don't get is an honest discussion about firearms in this country. I get why this is the case- election year and all that- I just don't get how we ended up with this firearms culture that thinks there is nothing wrong with carrying assault weapons with 100 round magazines and that the NRA essentially can quash the discussion just by existing. Can you explain, because I'm at a loss.

I can't explain. Look, I'm not even rabidly anti-gun. But the Constitution allows reasonable restrictions -- and the definition of reasonable simply must include whatever is needed to keep an unstable young man from assembling an arsenal and using it to kill innocent moviegoers.

Gene: It's the same thing every time. The biographies of the murdered. The recounting of acts of selflessness and plain luck. The call for "healing." The candlelight ceremonies. The gun lover statements saying "If a good person had only been armed." I'm 64 and I've heard it again and again and again. And nothing will happen, because (1) the country is absolutely awash in firearms and (2) no politician, with the exception of Mayor Bloomberg, has the guts to even talk about the issue of why one man should be able to purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the internet. I don't want guns outlawed, by the way. If someone wants a pump action shotgun to protect their home, no problem. I'm not a hunter, but if people want to hunt, I don't object. But why people should be able to buy military grade automatic weapons is beyond me. Incidentally, the accused in Colorado is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. That's why this shooting scares me the most.

The most ridiculous, shameful thing said by gun-lobby apologists is that perhaps there would have been less loss of life if more people in the theater had been armed. Imagine someone trying to identify and take down the shooter amid all the smoke, the chaos, the screams... I can't imagine how many more people would have been killed or injured.

Nothing more will happen on sane gun control laws. Nothing will happen on entitlement reform, taxes or climate change either. Why? The United States doesn't manage for the long term, it manages by crisis. Why? Trust. No one trusts the government to tell the truth. Everyone says the government should be run more like a business. And sadly, this is one area where we do run like a business. Most businesses today don't give a rip about 6 or 12 months from now, all they want to know is how much money can you make for us today. All one needs to do is review the stupid "debt crisis" from last summer and that's all you need to know how we run, and will likely continue to run, this country.

We don't even manage by crisis anymore. Here we have a crisis that implicates our lax gun laws -- and no one expects anything to happen.

How can you reconcile all the gnashing of teeth and money spent to protect us from (mythical) voter fraud but selling an arsenal to a crazed young man is apparently a God-given right? Even taking guns out of the equation, when did body armor and TEAR GAS become consumer goods?

Irreoncilable. And no, I don't think it's necessary to consider combat gear a God-given right.

I'm so tired of hearing that hunters 'need' semi-automatic weapons. If you need a semi-automatic weapon to bring down Bambi, maybe you should spend some quality time at a gun range instead.

Really. I'm not anti-hunting (way out in the woods, please, away from people). I eat meat and realize this means killing animals. But I thought it was supposed to be a sport? Many of these weapons don't seem very sporting.

A week or two ago when Romney's refusal to release his tax returns dominated the news, many pundits on both the left and the right were saying the pressure was getting so great that Romney would inevitably have to cave. Do you agree? It seems Romney is digging in deeper and there's nothing inevitable about him releasing his taxes or in any way satisfying the public's curiosity about if some years he found legal ways to avoid paying any taxes, how he acquired such a well-funded IRA, and so on.

I doubt Mitt Romney will ever release his taxes, because obviously there's stuff in there the Romneys don't want "you people" to see. I think he did the risk-benefit analysis and decided that while he might lose some support if he refuses to release the taxes, he would lose more support if he did release them. I assume that Democrats will keep up the pressure, and maybe Romney will have to recalculate.

Hi Gene, Admittedly I am getting old, but for most of my life I can only recall two mass killing incidents, both from 1966. Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and killed 16 and wounded 32 while in Chicago Richard Speck killed 8 student nurses. Now these mass killings happen so frequently I can't even keep track of them. It seems the problem is more than just easy access to guns.

There is a bigger problem, and sensible gun control wouldn't solve everything. But it would help.

The Mittster has finally gone there: on Larry Kudrow's program, he said the President's experience is "foreign." I don't know how I'm going to survive October, if this is what is being dished up in the dog days of summer. And I think the President's next campaign ad should be "Mitt Romney is holding a fundraiser in a foreign country." Yes, I know that Americans in foreign countries are free to donate to political campaigns, but this has got to be one of Mitt's biggest blunders. It doesnt look right, it doesn't sound right.

Mitt Romney has lived in France, held bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, and owned companies in Bermuda. And he's calling President Obama foreign?

There is rampant speculation that Romney paid very low or even no taxes during some years prior to 2010. While this may have been legal, how does he justify this when America was at war? Do we want a president who did his best not to share in the sacrifice of supporting our troops?

I don't think people would object to seeing that Romney took advantage of available deductions. But to get his tax bill down to zero, or theareabouts, he'd have to perform some legerdemain that most people might find shifty, even if legal. I suspect that's the kind of thing he doesn't want us to see.

I certainly don't think assault weapons need to remain legal in this country to possess. However, the saying is "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Countries with far stricter gun controls like Norway, Germany, and many African nations still have senseless gun violence and mass murders. While a ban on unnecessarily powerful assault weapons may pacify victims and a nation in search of answers, the bottom line is that laws are broken on a daily basis, and some insane person can relatively easily procure a similar cache of weapons and ammunition on the black market and carry out the same violent rampage. What we need to ask ourselves is are we as a public vigilant enough to protect ourselves when it takes police 10 minutes to respond to a masacre?

I don't know how those people in the movie theater could have been more vigilant. And I think it's reasonable -- and necessary -- to at least make it more difficult for an insane person to assemble an arsenal. Did James Holmes have any idea how to purchase a black-market gun? Maybe he would have figured it out, but maybe not.

I have to purchase liability insurance on my vehicle, why am I not required to purchase liability insurance on my weapon? At least then there would be an opportunity for compensation and, hey, some other industry other than gun manufacturers would get a buck from our arming ourselves.

Great question.

Another question for the "if only someone had been armed" crowd: leaving aside the teargas, the darkness, the panic, and even the semi-automatic rifle -- if you truly believe that the answer is to have the citizenry armed to the teeth so that some hero can overcome his or her adrenalin and the chaos of the scene to take out a mass shooter, what is your position on the ready availability of body armor? Most people are ignoring the Aurora shooter's _defensive_ preparations, except for the occasional armchair hero who insists that a (miraculous) headshot would still have done the trick.

Good point. The whole idea of an armed citizen somehow intervening successfully is crazy.

That's always the response from the NRA and its cohort. The police were stunned by the preparations of the accused. Not just a ballistic vest, but a helmet, leggings and even ballistic throat and groin protection. He tosses smoke grenades and starts firing at random, not caring who he kills, just wanting to kill. Anyone there armed with even a .40 handgun would have been at a huge disadvantage. Multiple armed people would have created a crossfire situation, I imagine. And the people who say this may know guns, but very, very few have ever been in a kill or be killed situation--the vast majority of police never draw their weapons while on duty over the course of their careers. The idea that every American gun owner is, at heart, a nerveless Wyatt Earp is absurd.

When highly trained police officers fire their weapons in the line of duty, they hit the target roughly one time out of three. Civilians would not approach that success rate.

Gene--what can ordinary Americans do starting today to get our elected officials to address the lack of meaningful laws to minimize this gun violence. They talk about our kids and grandkids when it comes to deficits but what about the mental effect these massacres are having on our kids and grandkids? Silence.

Write your representatives in Congress and your state legislature. They pay attention to letters from constituents.

Maybe it's my numbness over the whole issue and the fact that I gave up on watching the news a year and a half ago (see previous numbness), but assault weapons used to be banned and now they're not?

Yep. The ban was enacted in 1994 but it had a ten-year sunset provision and was allowed to expire in 2004.

It is interesting where priorities lie. We have databases that track prescription drug purchases in an effort to curb doctor shopping and opioid abuse (these have been successful), but no databases that track guns and ammo sales. I could see a similar database being a big use to help identify potential danger.

Far too reasonable an idea. 

I read that PA admitted there has been no case of voter fraud. Why are they still fighting for voter ID?

Duh. To minimize the portion of the electorate deemed most likely to vote for Democrats.

But Gene, all of these points in support of gun control make perfect sense but anyone who does not support gun control has long since stopped listening and whenever the subject is broached, their mantra of "Guns don't kill people - people kill people" drowns out any hope of discussion. And THAT is why people have given up and just decided they have to accept the occasional massacre in this country.

And it's absurd. PEOPLE WITH GUNS kill people. Imagine if James Holmes had had a knife or a spear. 

"Write your representatives in Congress and your state legislature. They pay attention to letters from constituents." Gene - the interns are going back to college soon. There won't be anyone left to run the autopen machine sending me back the canned response. You think even a thousand letters will overcome the NRA fundraiser?

Maybe not a th0usand. But two thousand? Three thousand? Voters trump even the NRA, and when voters let poiticians know they care, polliticians listen.


Thanks, everybody, for participating in a lively hour of debate. My time is up, but I'll be back next week. Hope to see you then.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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