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Eugene Robinson Live

Dec 18, 2012

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about politics and his latest column

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Hello, all, and welcome once again. Today there are developments on the fiscal cliff, Obama's latest offer, Boehner's so-called Plan B, blah blah blah. Tell the truth, though, I'm having trouble focusing on anything but the horror in Newtown and the need for action. It's hard to even get your head around all the complex issues involved in these mass shootings -- mental health, alienation, school security -- but that is no excuse for throwing up our hands. We know these killers use military-style assault weapons, and we know these are not guns used for hunting or self-defense against home intruders, so let's ban the mass murdrers' weapons-of-choice. Now. The broader "conversation about guns" will take time. Let's not wait to take action -- and assault weapons ban -- that we know we need to take. If we wait until the end of an open-ended "conversation," more innocent lives will be stolen away.

I live in a rural area of the country where just about every household has some guns. These include shotguns, rifles and pistols. The shotguns are used for hunting and clay target shooting and the rifles and pistols for hunting and target shooting. We do have a state law requiring licensure for carrying handguns in public. Many of the weapons were handed down over a couple of generations and are not on record with any government agency. I don't believe it would be possible for the government to confiscate all these firearms. Many are not on record and those which are could be hidden and falsely reported as being stolen. Banning just one gun as you suggest, the AR 15, amounts to no more than a "symbolic" act. Too many lethal guns of many different makes and actions are possessed by individuals in this country such that an attempt to disarm the population would be impossible as well as a violation of the Second Amendment. The only solution I see to prevent mass shooting murders by deranged individuals is to place armed officers in schools, shopping malls and other areas where significant numbers of potential victims gather. A couple of trained gun carrying officers placed at the school in Newtown could have stopped the shooting massacre in Connecticut.

The government is not going to "confiscate" your guns. I would propose a buy-back offer for AR-15 style assault rifles, but that's unlikely. It would help just to ban the sale of new military-style weapons of the kind the killer in Newtown carried. Yes, there are plenty of deadly guns out there -- that's what they are made for, to kill -- but the killers in Aurora, Portland and now Newtown all used Bushmasters. They had a reason for choosing that weapon, and other mass killers tend to use similar assault rifles and overpowered semiautomatic pistols. They also tend to load up on more ammunition than any hunter or sportsman needs. How many shots do you get at a deer? Not thirty.

To those who say that having guns will protect you, they need only look at the mother of the shooter. Owning a gun sure didn't help her! That wasn't the outcome many gun enthusiasts envision, but that is the reality. I would love to know how many times that people with guns have actually stopped a mass killer.

It happens, but quite rarely. As I wrote this morning, if you buy a gun, it's overwhelmingly likely that it will never be fired in anger. But if it is, about the least likely reason is that you're shooting at an intruder. Much more likely is that it will be used in suicide or to shoot someone you know, perhaps in the heat of anger. The Harvard School of Public Health has done a lot of work on this question. Guns actually don't make you safe.

Is there enough of an outrage that congress is prepared to have a meaningful, fact based (as opposed to emotion-based) conversation about gun control in this country? The number of high-powered, high-capacity weapons is rediculously high and entirely unnecessary. Traditionally the right has always taken the stance that any gun control was all of one step away from taking away every single gun in the country- will they now allow for a reasonable conversation or will they still be the party of no?

We'll find out. We've heard changes of heart from NRA-approved Democratic officials and from Republicans (like Joe Scarborough) who no longer have to run in GOP primaries. But we've heard essentially nothing from Republican members of Congress. My political advice to the GOP would be not to oppose an assault weapons ban, because I think there's going to be popular sentiment for such a measure.

After winning his 900th game, he closed his press conference not with thanking his fans or his family, but making a statement about gun control in this society. He stated he is not after people wanting to hunt, but that he wants a ban on assault rifles.

I've never been much of a Syracuse fan, but I am today. And a Boeheim fan.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the events in Newtown leading to a consensus for change. Obviously, our current situation is out of balance. My concern is that we as a country are divided regionally (whether geographically or by population-- i.e. urban vs. rural) on the 'solution'. For many in more urban areas, it seems a no brainer to add additional regulations (waiting periods, background checks, prohibiting certain firearms). For many in rural areas, however, I think the solution is viewed more as increased training and enforcement of laws preventing criminals or those who are mentally ill from getting handguns, but not disturbing the rights of 'law-abiding', reasonable people to own firearms. In other words, some focus on the "what" - the types of guns and what is regulated, and others focus on the "who" -- the types of people who can get guns. While there is an overlap of those two approaches, I don't think there will be a consensus as to what changes in gun regulations are needed. So, I'm afraid the issue will get discussed, there will be some minor changes that please nobody, and at the end everyone will bemoan the inability of our political process to bring about change.

That sounds like a smart analysis, but if that's the division, urban/suburban will win -- that's where most people live. I think it's a bit less clear-cut, and I don't think most deer hunters really believe an AR-15 will do them much good.

Mr. Robinson, I know you are saddened as all of us are, however let me point out a few things; first this is not a political issue. I am a lifelong Democrat from one of those Blue states. There are many politicians that will be looking for work come reelection time if they succumb to this madness. Also you claim stick gun control would somehow prevent this; my ancestors emigrated in the early 1800s from a country with very strict gun control, that country in Norway. Remember what happen their recently? You cannot legislate crazy; you need to try to control those areas that need protection. Locks and trained personnel are a good start and I would not just dismiss having some sort of weapon to deter this type of event. It does not have to be a gun; there are other types of deterrents. Also, just to point out the hypocrisy of the media; there were 9,878 drunk driving fatalities in 2011, and over 200 of them were children. Also, how about those killed by people texting or talking on the phone, I am not sure if the numbers are available, since you have large companies that would like to block the data. I agree that these shooting deaths are very sad, however is it worst than a child killed by a drunk driver? Our laws and punishments need to be revamped to drunk driving and use of a cell phone.

The Norway shooting was horrific, and yes, these mass shootings do sometimes happen in other countries. But not regularly. Here, they happen all the time. And drunk driving is a good example: Forty years ago, fifty years ago, drunk driving was seen as unpreventable and almost amusing. Then Mothers Against Drunk Driving started a movement, and now anyone who drives drunk faces society's disapproval and wrath, in addition to the legal penalties. As a result, drunk driving fatalities are down. We can do the same thing with assault weapons.

Gene, I believe we should institute more stringent gun control but I am uncomfortable framing the debate in terms of "need" when it comes to the exercise of a constitutional right. Why do you NEED Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure if you haven't done anything wrong? Why do you NEED to post your thoughts on the Internet. And so on. Citizens shouldn't have to justify exercising a right. Better to leave need out of it and just say that a certain aspect of a right needs to be tweaked for public safety, like the cliche about shouting "fire" in a crowded movie theater. Nobody needs a Ferrari but we don't have a justifiable societal reason to prohibit them.

Point well taken. It is probably wise not to talk about "needs" and instead to talk about conflict with an overriding public interest, in this case safety. Just like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Although the amendment is just one sentence long, I seldom see or hear the entire thing quoted. Usually it's just the second half (e.g., on the front of the NRA bulding). The Founding Fathers seemed to indicate a well-regulated miltia, protecting the state, as the main reason for the right to bear arms. Supreme Court dcisions (damn activist judges) expanded that right. Do you think there will be a new look at the Second Amendment and what it was aimed to accomplish?

I doubt it -- not by the Roberts court, at least. Interestingly, President Obama -- a former constitutional law professor -- has said that he, too, believes the Second Amendment conveys an individual right to keep and bear arms.

You advocate that current owners of what were legally-purchased weapons be required to turn them in to the government so they can be destroyed. Do you believe owners should receive just compensation for the weapons and any accessories, such as scopes, rail systems, magazines, etc that are now worthless? Or should they take what would in many cases be a loss of several thousand dollars for the good of the country?

If such a thing were to happen -- and I frankly doubt it will -- there would have to be compensation, of course. This has been done in some other countries. I believe that in Australia, after a Tasmanian mass shooting, the government bought back some types of assault weapons.

... nor do I own a gun, but to call the NRA an "apologist for murders" goes too far. I can't think of anybody -- short of being a nutjob -- who is happy each time an innocent victim is murdered with a gun. I think that the massacre could have been prevented/lessened if there was somebody in the school authorized to carry a gun shoot the assassin. The response by police -- as admirable and quick as it was -- was too late.

I stand by my description of the NRA, which has opposed and blocked any and every attempt at sensible gun control. And I worry about people with loaded guns in elementary schools. Let's assume there was an armed security guard. Would he or she have reacted in time, or would there just be another victim? And what if a guard did have time to fire? I can't help but think of the recent shooting in New York outside the Empire State Building. Guy starts firing, nearby police officers pull their weapons, they try to take the guy down -- and they wound nine innocent bystanders. Every one hit by police bullets. Now, cops are the best shooters we've got -- they have to demonstrate proficiency and train regularly. It's just not that simple.

The NRA is an apologist for murder? Are you frickin' kidding me? Here's what you and yours fail to understand: The guns are already out there. Upwards of 300 million of them. They're not going away. Insults aside, why NOT allow teachers or security guards to be armed? Do you suppose there might be a reason why (with the ONE exception of the Giffords shooting) every mass shooting since 1950 in the US has been in a place where civilians are not allowed to have guns? Do you think it's a coincidence? The deadlist shooting was at "gun-free" Va Tech where the shooter used pistols that will NEVER be ourlawed, not an assault rifle. Even if you banned the magazines under Sen. Feinstein's legislation he'd still have had ten rounds per pistol. You should write using facts, not emotion. It would serve you better.

If the Virginia Tech shooter had been limited to fewer rounds, at least some families would not be grieving. As for arming teachers, see my previous response -- and give me a break. Do you really want to send your first-grader into a classroom where the teacher is packing a loaded handgun. Please.

Mr. Robinson, I am a super Life Member of the NRA, meaning I continue to give money to the lobbying group that does the most to protect my Second Amendment rights. I don't agree with everything they do, but then again you don't agree with everything the Democratic Party does, either. My point is that for gun control legislation to pass with a Republican House and several key Democratic Senators up for reelection in '14, you and those on your side need to be persuasive, not derisive. There are plenty of us who are willing to listen and to compromise on some gun control measures, but it doesn't start the conversation on the right foot by calling us apologists for murder or refer to ideas out of hand as "beyond obscene — and beneath contempt." I can guarantee you this: if you and folks like you continue to demonize Second Amendment advocates, you will never see gun control pass. Count on it.

I am a columnist whose job is to call it as I see it, and it serves no good to sugarcoat reality. And if you decide to oppose an assault weapons ban because you are more offended by my attitude than by the deaths of 20 innocent children, then shame on you.

The vast majority of these massacres are caused by white men, and most demographic groups polled this week support stronger gun control except for blue-collar white men. I doubt this is a coincidence. A major factor in the politics in the last 40 years has been white male resentment over the gains made by women and minorities. White men who aren't wealthy have probably felt the most threatened by this. We just had an election where one side treated such men as its base. And most of the rhetoric against gun control treats urban blacks as the biggest threat to public safety, often with euphemisms like "criminal element." It's reasonable to suspect that racial resentment is one motivation among several for these shooters, where they feel like they're being denied something that's rightfully theirs.

I think you're heading up a blind alley, or at least an exceedingly narrow one. If white male resentment is the cause, why aren't the shooters aiming at minorities? And meanwhile, African-American and Latino communities have their own share of gun violence, to say the least -- a slow-motion "massacre" that at the end of the day accounts for a lot more deaths than theses mass killings. I believe an assault weapons ban would eventually help cut down the body count from those killings, too.

I know we're all caught up in the little babes who were slaughtered, but their teachers were true heroes trying to protect them. And they all have parents, or children, who are grieving too.

Perhaps I'll do another column to focus on the educators. I have written, in another context, that teachers are heroes. Proven again Friday in a display of amazing valor.

Okay, once you've confiscated everyone's guns, what then? Aren't there other things contributing to a culture of violence? The presence of guns alone aren't operating in a vacuum. Don't we need to ban violent videogames and movies? How about gangsta rap that glorifies seeking revenge when one has been "dissed"? Do you really think that gun control alone is the answer? If not, why aren't you addressing the spectrum of factors contributing to our problems?

I'm not addressing the whole spectrum -- yet -- because when we do, we get hopelessly bogged down and end up doing nothing. Yes, there are complex issues involved -- and no one measure that will make everything better. But if we see something we can do that will save at least some lives, that will prevent at least some of these mass killings, we should do it. An assault weapons ban is such a measure.

Lots of people, including your first poster, suggest the solution to things like Newtown is to have armed officers everywhere, even in schools and movie theaters and the like. But doesn't that create the very police state that these gun rights people want to avoid? If you believe you need your gun in order to keep the government at bay, how does it advance your cause one whit to respond to this country's plague of gun deaths by putting armed officers everywhere?!? How could any sane person be happy with the idea of their kids sitting in a classroom under the watchful eye of a couple of heavily armed policemen?

Beats me.

I'd be happy to talk about gun control, but the problem is that most gun control people know nothing about weapons AT ALL. There are more erroneous bits of information in most stories about shootings - and in your commentaries - about weapons than you can shake a stick at. It's hard to take you guys seriously when you have no idea what you're talking about except that black guns look scary.

Well, I do know that the AR-15 was originally designed as an anti-personnel weapon -- a machine for killing people. I know that the ammunition it fires is designed to do maximum damage once it enters the body. It doesn't just look scary.

Do you realize that the vast majority of police officers have not fired their weapon in anger? It's a deterrent and difficult to quantify the impact.

Yes, but everyone knows police officers are carrying guns. I have no idea whether you, John Q. Public, are carrying a weapon or not. I have no idea whether you have one in your home. So where's the deterrent? If the possibility that you might have a gun in your home (and know how to use it) were a deterrent, there would be no home invasions, right? All the criminals would assume all the potential victims are armed. And then, I suppose, none of the potential victims would have to go to the trouble and expense of actually arming themselves, since the criminals would be deterred anyway? Is that how it's supposed to work? Somehow, I think deterrence via firepower is not a factor in these school shootings, anyway.

Obama still seems to be afraid of the NRA and I wasn't impressed with the substance of what he had to say. Where is this coming from?

The president's reaction seemed to be of shock, sadness, reflection and resolve. That's appropriate, but it's not enough. Now we need action.


That's all for today, folks. Thanks for participating. No chat next week, but we'll resume in the New Year.

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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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